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Jason Walsh: Scaling back of school nutrition standards good news for child-obesity fans


“How can you have any pudding, if you don’t eat your meat?!” – school nutritionist in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”

For some reason, the pizza was especially memorable. My elementary school served it on Mondays – this square-shaped slice of shiny grey cheese oozing over a soggy crust of refined white flour. With just enough salt to mask the curious tin flavor of the olives, it was delicious. Easily the campus favorite of the bought lunches – even more popular than “corn dog Friday.”

Sometimes a school lunch is just a school lunch. Other times it’s a sweet, kinda salty memory.

Take, for instance, the half pint of Carnation Frozen Malt Ice Cream we’d get daily at the lunch counter in middle school for a cool 75 cents. It takes a special malt to emphasize on its cardboard container that it’s frozen ice cream. Best to let it sit in the sun for five minutes lest the unyielding icy treat snap the accompanying plywood spoon.

This was the late 1980s – the waning days of school lunch glory years when the milk was served room temperature, creamed corn counted as its own food group and Sloppy Joe’s were an admirably apt description.

It’s also about the time when childhood obesity rates had officially doubled since 1970; the situation was grave and getting gravy-er. That’s when school nutrition popped up on the radar as a place to draw a line the plus-sized sand. By the 1990s, that line in the sand became a line the sandwich – with cracked whole wheat under a bed of sprouts on the one side, and a foot-long Subway meatball on the other. Schools were developing dual personalities at the snack counter – healthful salad bars were cropping up in campus cafeterias as fast as school districts were selling out their kids to fast food corporations for the rights to hock Quarter Pounders and Taco Bell Grandes at the 10:30 break.

By the 2000s, childhood obesity rates were skyrocketing and school lunches were being identified as a contributing factor. By 2005, a reported 25 percent of children in the United States were overweight; 11 percent obese.

In a study reported in Time magazine in 2010, kids who ate school lunches were 29 percent more likely to be obese than kids who brought a lunch from home. That’s also the year Michelle Obama spearheaded the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, aimed improving school nutrition standards in an effort to curb childhood obesity. Since that time, childhood obesity rates have leveled off. In January of this year, the percentage of school-age kids overweight in the U.S. had dropped to a kinda-svelte 20 percent. – still far higher than a generation ago, but progress seemed to be happening.

Until now.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration began its promised tearing down of school meal nutrition standards set by the Obama White House – relaxing dietary protections for the upcoming school year by allowing greater amounts of salt, refined white bread and fatty milk in kinder-kitchens across America. Kids like that stuff better, goes the basic line of reasoning from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. (Kids also like Pop Rocks and boogers; at press time it was unclear if those were part of the Trump school nutrition program.)

Sadly, the School Nutrition Association – which counts PepsiCo, General Mills and Domin’s pizza among its most prominent food-industry benefactors – applauded the lowering of nutrition standards, saying many of its member school districts found it too challenging to get their students to eat healthier foods.

Fortunately, leafy greens and jicama stand a fighting chance against Cinnabon and the Hamburglar in the Sonoma Valley.

Cody Williams, food and nutrition services manager for the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, believes the district will “stay the course” and not return to the tater-tot days of yore.

“Unfortunately those school districts (who didn’t implement the Hunger-Free Kids Act standards) rely heavily on the food manufacturing industry to produce their foods – hence the relaxing of sodium restrictions and whole grain rich,” said Williams. “Those two areas are influenced by the food industry, as areas of their sales have most likely dipped as districts go toward clean healthy scratch cooking with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables.”

In the meanwhile, SVUSD will carry on with its mix of highly popular (and kind of nutrition neutral) fare such as pulled-pork sandwiches and turkey pesto melts, with healthful doses of vegetable smoothies, produce from local farmers and fruits and vegetables from the district’s own school gardens.

And as to those folks fighting to bring back corn dog Friday? Those dedicating their souls toward little kids’ taste-bud-given right to enjoy unnaturally high levels of salt, monosodium glutamate and fructose corn syrup?

Save some Carnation malt for my 6-year-old.

She’s thin and healthy; that frozen ice cream is ready to thaw.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.