White House, food and children

Posted: Thursday, August 27, 2009

Union Station in Washington is a hectic, noisy place. But one young girl's voice is rising above the clatter of Amtrak trains and subway cars dropping off congressional staffers headed for nearby Capitol Hill.

In new advertisements on the station walls, 8-year-old Jasmine Messiah looks out at commuters and asks, "President Obama's daughters get healthy school lunches. Why don't I?" Within 24 hours of going up, the ads, which are sponsored by my organization, sparked a debate focusing on the healthfulness of school meals and on a question of propriety: Is it fair to mention the first family in an advertisement?

The substantive issue is that most children do not get the healthful foods they need. Fast food and junk food sellers exploit children like never before. And meals served at 80 percent of schools are too high in fat, according to a 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture study.

One in six American children is now overweight. One in three will develop diabetes at some point in life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many have the beginnings of heart disease before they pick up their high school diplomas.

A big part of the blame falls on the USDA policy of using school lunches as a dumping ground for agricultural commodities. When cheese prices fall, the USDA buys up millions of pounds of cheese. When beef prices fall, it buys up beef.

Suddenly, school menus push cheeseburgers, cheese pizza and Salisbury steak - not because anyone thinks children need more cholesterol, but because our government treats kids like human garbage disposals. Out of every dollar of commodity purchases, 55 cents go for meats, dairy products and eggs, and only about a quarter goes to vegetables and fruits.

When Congress takes up the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act later this year, lawmakers can give children healthier choices. A school offering a greasy cheeseburger - 5 grams of saturated fat, 268 calories - could also provide a veggie burger, which has 0 grams of saturated fat and 230 calories.

But many of the 31 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program have trouble finding healthful meals at school. The president's family, to its credit, chose Sidwell Friends, a private school that offers not only a top education but also a healthy vegetarian option every day.

So is the ad fair? The issue started during the campaign when the president included the children in staged events leading up to his election. Waiting in the wings was J. Crew, which exploited Inauguration Day wardrobe choices, quickly followed by Ty Inc.'s Beanie Babies named for the president's children. Soon the White House had to set rules for its own behavior and that of everyone else.

The Union Station ads follow the rules, avoiding any use of the children's names or images, and in no way intruding on their privacy. That did not stop nervous White House attorneys from calling for the ads to be removed, although the president himself had not objected to - or even seen - the ads so far as anyone knew.

It is Congress, not the president, that needs to act. But the president can lead the way for children. So far, he is ignoring the issue. The president's choice of Tom Vilsack to head the USDA has meant a continuation of the policy of dumping meat and cheese into schools. On July 31, Vilsack announced an additional $243 million in unhealthful purchases, saying in a press release, "The Obama administration is committed to pursuing all options to help dairy farmers."

We have to cut the president some slack. An administration trying simultaneously to sort out health care, the economy, and two wars has not had the bandwidth to study up on good nutrition. But until the government understands why kids are overweight and unhealthy, health-care expenditures will rise, as will the shrill temper of the health-care debate.

Every child, no matter how disadvantaged, deserves a healthful lunch every day, and Congress needs to make sure that happens. Parents and students need to say so, loudly and clearly, until Congress gets the message.

• Neal Barnard is a nutrition researcher and president of the vegan organization Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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