Hi I’m Christa O’Brien. I’m a full-time working mother of two young boys who is trying to get her family off processed foods while also getting her kids more intimately involved with the food that they eat. My blog Table of Promise is my attempt to document what we are eating and to investigate food and answer my questions of how and why it is made the way it is.
I have been following Mrs. Q’s blog for the last couple of months. I am very passionate about food, particularly whole foods and non processed foods, and I have two young boys so I am very interested in what my kids are eating. But my kids are young; they are just turning one and three this summer. So the School Lunch Debate hasn’t quite reached me on a personal level. But I see it looming on the horizon.
I read all of Mrs. Q’s postings and sometimes I comment, but last week something Ed Bruske said in his guest blog sent me on an Internet information hunt. He mentioned that on a trip to his daughter’s school he saw children eating breakfast. Sugary cereals, flavored milk, pop tarts, orange juice??!! Children eating 15 teaspoons of sugar with their breakfast??!! In case you are like me and need to look up the conversion of that number, that is more than a quarter of a cup of sugar. I found this shocking. When I attended public school we were served a hot lunch but breakfast was just starting to be served in Memphis City Public Schools and if I remember correctly you had to qualify economically for the service.
Sugar is a problem in my house. Everything seems to be sugary. Even though we strive for quality food, I know we are still eating too much sugar. Between waffles, fruit, honey on yogurt and treats for good behavior it seems like everything that actually gets ingested has been sweetened. My toddler’s behavior is definitely negatively affected by refined sugar. So I cannot imagine what a group of 500-600 school kids must be like after ingesting a quarter of a cup of sugar each with little or no fiber to offset it’s absorption. Ed’s words really opened my eyes to what it would be like to hand my child over to the public school system in two short years.
But how could this be possible? How could so much sugar get into the hands of little people when the conventional wisdom is that sugar needs to be eaten in moderation? I took to the internet and uncovered many facets to the story.
Table sugar as we know it comes from sugar cane and sugar beets. The domestic supply of refined sugar is about 50-50 cane and beets. About 10% of the entire domestic sugar supply comes from the state of Florida alone. In 1934 the US government was eager to shore up agriculture prices as a result of the depression. They created the country’s first U.S. Sugar policy. This policy is still in place today. The policy sets a price floor for sugar that is grown and sold domestically. Currently the floor price is about three times higher than the world market price. The policy also sets limits on imported sugar by country of origin. Many sugar cane and sugar beet farms in the US are controlled directly by the refiners and so high prices are a huge profit booster for these companies. The price floor encourages overproduction which is of course detrimental for the soil but also world agriculture prices. So much extra sugar depresses world prices and sugar producers in other countries struggle to break even after the excess US sugar is dumped abroad.
‘But’, you ask, ‘if sugar is so expensive in this country, Then wouldn’t that make sugary foods like candy and soda more expensive thus regulating supply and demand?’ Yes, in fact it did for a number of years (and still does for many various industries that rely on crystallized sugar). Now enter high-fructose corn syrup.
The way the government regulates prices on sugar is altogether different than how it regulates other commodities like corn and soybeans and cotton. With corn for example, the government subsidizes farmers directly. This also encourages overproduction, but because no price floor is set, the more corn there is the lower the price. This situation makes corn very plentiful and very inexpensive. The government has been subsidizing farmers directly since the New Deal Era, but as a result of the recession of the mid-1970s food prices soared and so did subsidies. The government did this specifically to lower the price of food. And boy did it work. Americans currently spend less than 10% of their annual income on food. That is less than virtually all industrialized nations.
In relation to the sugar issue, there was a lot of cheap corn lying around that needed to be consumed. The problem was that regular old corn syrup isn’t a good sugar substitute because it doesn’t taste as sweet as table sugar to the human tongue. But in 1957 scientists further refined regular corn syrup (almost entirely glucose) and broke the syrup down into essentially liquid fructose. The original corn syrup was then mixed with the liquid fructose and boom, high-fructose corn syrup. HFCS was amazing because it was easily transportable and worked perfectly in all wet applications like soda and batter based baked goods.
Now, every strong commodity needs a good lobby in Washington, right? In 1943 the Sugar Association was formed, as they say on their website, to promote “…[the] educating [of] health professionals, media, governmental officials and the public about sugar’s goodness”. They happen to be a very strong lobby. Some recent activities of the Sugar Association: in 2003 the WHO was set to unveil a new set of dietary guidelines. One of the recommendations was that not more than 10% of a person’s daily caloric intake should come from sugar. The Sugar lobby was furious. They contacted WHO directly saying that they had a report from the Institute of Medicine stating that it was perfectly safe to have sugar comprise 25% of a person’s daily calories. Furthermore, the Sugar lobby contacted then US Health Secretary Tommy Thompson. They recommended to Thompson that all further US funding of WHO be dependent upon WHO’s agreement that they base their recommendations on science. And through these actions, WHO was pressured into silence on the sugar matter. They changed the wording on their recommendations about sugar to reference a numbers of time per day that sugar could be eaten but no amounts are mentioned. Even Harvey Fineberg, the then president at the IOM who oversaw the study the Sugar Association was referencing, contacted US Health Secretary Tommy Thompson to say that his institute’s report was being misinterpreted.
This omission of sugar in the national food conversation is directly related to School Lunch. The Sugar Association has successfully lobbied the USDA to remove any mention of added sugars in their food pyramid and other nutritional literature. I was surprised to see this as truth when I went to www.myfoodpyramid.gov. Remember when you were in grade school learning about the food pyramid and there was a tiny triangle at the top that said ‘use added fats, oils and sweets sparingly’? That tiny sliver is no longer there. Today’s food pyramid talks only about fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and meat. But with so many foods like ‘drinkable fruit’ that likely has added sugar, a lot of pertinent information is getting lost in the shuffle. Even the new Child Nutrition Act that is now working its way through the halls of Washington mentions no regulation of sugar.
Mrs. Q has talked a lot about funny grains popping into a meal, like an extra piece of bread here or a cookie there. Schools are required to adhere to the food pyramid serving requirements when planning school lunches. But with sugar being virtually removed from the governmental dialogue on food suddenly a school could technically view a cookie in the same way they would a serving of rice. Any normal thinking person would see there is a problem in the way the national guidelines are being executed.
Bruske stated in an recent piece for Grist Magazine that some schools who had analyzed their breakfast program found that over 44 percent of the total calories came from sugar. The USDA nutrition guidelines state that only about 10% of one’s daily calories are discretionary, meaning only 10% can come from relative non-nutritive sources like solid fats and sugar. The rest need to come from sources that are providing your body with nutrients, protein, vitamins and minerals. So many people today do not truly understand that calories and nutrient quality do not necessarily go hand in hand. It is not enough to feed our children the requisite number of calories. We must provide them with quality food that has nutrients that will allow their bodies and brains to develop optimally. With the mindset that all foods are equal among their classification (fruit, vegetable, grain, etc) you will forever get a combination of cheap substandard foods.
The truth is, not all foods are created equal. I must give credit to the folks like Ed Bruske, Ann Cooper, Alice Waters, Jaime Oliver and the like who are teaching those who need it about how to cook for our children. I believe that many people fervently want the kind of school lunch reform that will put fresh foods on the plates of our children. But clearly regulation alone hasn’t worked because food service companies and underfunded school systems have continued to find ways to under serve children’s needs even in the face of regulation. My hat is off to those who are rolling up their sleeves and getting to work to teach us how to accomplish this monumental task.
One last positive note: I was pleased to read on Ed Bruske’s blog last week that the DC school system has banned flavored milks beginning with the 2010-11 school year! Congratulations to all who worked hard to make it happen!
Bruske, Ed. SWEET AND LOW The Sweetener lobby: still a power house in the school lunch debate. Grist: A Beacon in the Smog. www.grist.org 19 Apr 2010.
Nestle, Marion. Sugary school meals hit lobbyists sweet spot. www.SFGate.com 2 May, 2010.
Sugar and Sweeteners. USDA Economic Research Service. www.ers.gov 9 June 2010
Agricultural Subsidy. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. www.wikipedia.org 9 June 2010
High-fructose corn syrup. Wikipedia-The Free Encyclopedia. www.wikipedia.org 11 June 2010
Boseley, Sarah. Sugar Industry threatens to scupper WHO. The Guardian. www.guardian.co.uk 21 Apr 2003