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Petition for Less Meat, School Lunch Hearing Come in Days Before Dietary Guidelines Deadline

Mary K. Caffrey
February's report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee called for an emphasis on plant-based diets and less red or processed meat. Protests from the meat industry followed, and the comment period was extended until Friday.
Friday marked the final day for public comment on the scientific report that goes to 2 US Cabinet Secretaries who have the final say on the nation’s nutrition policy for the next 5 years. And, to no one’s surprise, the final days before the deadline were eventful, with interests weighing in on the report’s call for Americans to eat less red meat.

On Thursday, Friends of the Earth and the Center for Biological Diversity presented petitions with 150,000 signatures supporting February recommendations from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), whose members for the first time called for favoring plant-based diets with less red and processed meat. The meat industry has protested the recommendation and, in fact, the public comment period was pushed back to allow more time for input.

“Americans in every corner of the country are moving toward diets that are better for themselves and better for wildlife and out planet, especially by eating less meat,” said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The choice is clear: in this era of climate change, drought, and diet-related health crises, the government should be leading us with dietary guidelines that are healthy and sustainable for us all.”

Under the process spelled out by Congress, comments on the DGAC report are forwarded to the Secretaries of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture; after a public hearing, the secretaries will jointly issue the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines, updated every 5 years, serve as official nutrition policy that inform what goes into meals for persons on public assistance, military meals, and the National School Lunch Program.

That last program was overhauled significantly in response to the 2010 guidelines, which informed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The legislation cut back on the levels of salt and fat in school meals, required that children be served fruits and vegetables, and put limits on a la carte items sold in school cafeterias.

As reported previously in Evidence-Based Diabetes Management, a publication of The American Journal of Managed Care, food service officials in suburban areas especially have protested the stricter nutrition standards, with complaints that cafeterias are losing money because students refuse to eat the healthier fare.

Nationwide, participation rates are off by 9% in elementary schools; however, rates are uneven, with higher drop-off reported in wealthier areas where children have more options to bring food from home. Drop-off rates among high school students is reportedly even higher in some areas, depending on whether local policies allow students to leave campus for lunch.

So it was not a coincidence that Thursday was also the hearing date on the status of school nutrition standards before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said it was important to allow “some flexibility” in the school lunch standards, which are up for reauthorization and along with several other federal nutrition programs.

School nutrition standards were revised after an Institute of Medicine report linked unhealthy school meals to rising rates of childhood obesity. Around that time, federal requirements began forcing schools to eliminate sugary drinks like sodas and the most unhealthy snacks from vending machines, which were money-makers for many schools. A recent study from California found that these policy changes produced noticeable effects on childhood obesity rates, although the effects were more pronounced in wealthier neighborhoods.

However, some who testified Thursday said it takes time for stricter nutrition standards to take hold among youth. Richard Goff, executive director for the Office of Child Nutrition in West Virginia’s Department of Education, said his state initially faced many of the same resistance to healthier eating standards when it overhauled its offerings back in 2011-2012. But he said the number of complaints feel over time, and some students now ask for the healthy options like “brown bread.”

Nutritionists and others who have discussed the school lunch standards say the challenge is the availability of unhealthy foods that compete with the school meals. Forcing cafeterias to give every child a fruit or vegetable, when older students can leave campus for fast food or unhealthy options sold at gas stations, sets the school lunch program up for failure, they say.

The DGAC report commented on this challenge in its discussion of dietary patterns, and said that getting Americans to change their food choices will take a comprehensive effort that addresses all the places where unhealthy food is available. The report’s emphasis on patterns and sustainability, promised at the outset, still provoked a strong reaction from some members of the food industry when it was released in February.

Around the Web

150,000 Americans Call for Less Meat, More Plants in Guidelines

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