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Serving Twinkies While Rome Burns

Why Are School Boards Defending Junk Food?

kids in school lunch line SOURCE: AP/DONNA MCWILLIAM The answer is a mix of politics and profits, two things that should not get in the way of national standards for school nutrition to help better educate our youngsters.

Childhood obesity, diabetes, and other nutrition-sensitive conditions are reaching epidemic proportions among children in the United States, and everyone but local school boards seem to understand the severity of this health and education (yes, education) crisis.

The American Medical Association devoted the entire April edition of its pediatric publication to disseminating the latest research. First Lady Michelle Obama is educating the nation about healthy eating through a regular field trip to the White House vegetable garden. And the William J. Clinton Foundation has made this a signature issue, putting pressure on companies to produce healthier products.

At a time when America’s economic salvation and leadership in the world are contingent on dramatically improving outcomes in public education, minimal nutritional standards are a no-brainer.

So why are the nation’s school boards fighting in Congress to protect their right to serve junk food to America’s school children? Well, profits and provincialism both have something to do with it, never mind the importance of good nutrition to the health, well-being, and educational opportunities for all our children.

Mandating minimal nutritional standards for food served in schools is a relatively modest proposal now before Congress—modest because schools must already abide by these standards in the free- and reduced-priced meals that are paid for by the federal government. Yet junk food still is commonplace in cafeterias, concession stands, and vending machines in schools across the country.

Evidence abounds that our kids need to eat healthier and that local school boards will not adequately address this issue on their own. But in recent testimony before Congress, the nation’s school boards decried national nutritional standards for what can be served to students in school.

At a time when America’s economic salvation and leadership in the world are contingent on dramatically improving outcomes in public education, minimal nutritional standards are a no-brainer. Yet the National School Boards Association thinks we should fight these issues out district-by-district so that we can have almost 15,000 different nutritional standards across the country—even though representatives of parents, child health and nutrition experts, and even food companies all advocate for a single national standard. (To read the testimony or watch the hearing, click here.)

Such a standard would even the playing field for disadvantaged districts. It would allow food companies to develop products for a national market, which is why it’s supported by industry. Undeterred by the public and economic benefits, the school boards want each and every district to develop its own nutritional standards.

The reasons cited by the school boards are weak, and raise serious concerns about their ability to govern in the public interest.

First of all, the school boards ask to be excused from enforcing nutritional standards because they worry that parents will complain that school boards are “culturally incompetent” and that food companies will object when their favorite products are no longer sold by the school. Put aside the fact that parents and food companies are both supporting national nutritional standards. Can the school boards really be admitting that they don’t want to take the heat for enforcing rules requiring minimal nutritional value?

The school boards also claim they are concerned that a national standard regarding healthy food would trample on “the values of local communities.” Maybe some communities just value obesity, diabetes, and other nutrition-sensitive conditions more than others.

To hide behind the loaded code words of cultural sensitivity and local values is offensive to the vast majority of parents who are concerned about their children’s health and assume their schools are, too. It should not be news to school boards that obesity and diabetes are much more prevalent in minority and low-income communities, which makes healthy food in these communities’ schools an even more important priority.

Finally, school districts also believe a school district’s “financial capabilities” should affect nutritional standards. Does this mean America cannot afford to eliminate junk food from poor schools?

Noting that a study in Pennsylvania found that only 29 percent of school districts report that students have fewer opportunities for physical activity now than they did before Congress insisted on the creation of local “wellness councils” a decade ago, the school boards claim that national rules are unnecessary. Oddly, the school boards point to this as an example of the success of local decision-making, asking for further deference because “just” 3 in 10 districts have diminished time for students to exercise. One wonders whether the school boards actually think this is an encouraging record, or are assuming no one is listening to them.

In fact, one significant reason for the school boards’ opposition to national nutrition standards is that school districts promote the sale of junk as a source of revenue, which the school board lobbyist outlined in his testimony before Congress. Problem is, the whole country pays for this penny-wise, pound-foolish mentality through the prevalence of diabetes and other chronic health problems, which contribute to lower overall health, less productivity, and greater expenses for treatment rather than prevention.

Perhaps most discouraging, however, are school boards’ misunderstanding of their own self-interest. Healthy children are better students. If school boards were appropriately focused on raising student achievement, then they wouldn’t be fighting for anyone’s right to feed their students junk food.

If school boards want to maintain their place as the most local expression of democracy, then they should recognize when the national interest must trump parochial concerns. Otherwise, parents and policymakers should take such important decisions out of their hands.

Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan didn’t have nutrition standards in mind when he called for the elimination of school boards, albeit indirectly, by encouraging cities to give control of the schools to their mayors. The National School Boards Association should help school boards choose the right healthy food for their districts, not protect school districts right to decide whether to sell and serve healthy food.

Ross Wiener is Senior Adviser at the Education Trust, a national non-profit organization advocating to close opportunity and achievement gaps in public education.


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