Open thread: USDA

The USDA makes the rules that school lunch lives by. I touched on it briefly this past week and many of you left some links in the comments section to help explain it to me.

Let’s talk about what the USDA is doing right and what they could do better as it relates to feeding our nation’s kids at school. Links would also be appreciated so that we don’t have to hunt around for information. I’m looking for nutritionists to weigh in as well. Thanks guys!

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22 thoughts on “Open thread: USDA

  1. The most immediate and glaring problem (although it merely shifts the blame, rather than addressing the underlying problem of having government in charge of a Procrustean "one size fits all" for every individual) is that the Department of AGRICULTURE, rather than (for example) the Food and Drug Administration or the Health Department, is in charge of telling us what we should eat.

    I don't expect the low-fat propaganda to die out any time soon, despite the increasing discrediting of Ancel Keys' China Study and the lipid hypothesis, or the immense web of agricultural subsidies that distort prices and hide the true cost of goods and services. I don't want to see ANYTHING subsidized, whether or not I personally think it's healthy. But I recognize I'm in the minority on this, as well as most things.

    "USDA Pyramid Scheme":

    "How the feds make bad for you food cheaper than healthful fare":

    "Cheaper Health Care":

  2. The feds have got to stop supporting Big Ag and their empty calorie food, and start supporting small farms and locally sourced healthy food. Their obsession with corn is killing our kids and our adults!

  3. Oh, and because so many people's eyes glaze over the more "hard data" you offer — and of course counter with "you can find any scientific study to prove anything you want", which is true — I find common-sense "bumper sticker" explanations your grandparents would have recognized to be the most effective.

    What do you feed livestock to make them fat?


    (And this is why factory-farmed cattle need to be given antibiotics during the last months of their life — the grains are making them sick, unlike their natural diet of grasses.)

  4. An additional link to what frogfarm posted:

    Gary Taubes: What if it's all been a big fat lie?

    And here's the problem – yes, the food pyramid is indeed out of whack – people really don't know what to eat unless they're willing to dig deep.

    But isnt' it interesting that right about when the gov't started heavily pushing the food pyramid is when the obesity epidemic exploded as did diseases like diabetes – HBP – etc.? We got the message of low fat/high carb loud and clear – and now we're paying for it.

    Agriculture has got some huge problems right now, and I'm not sure that there is any easy way to deal with it. Grain/corn crops are oversubsidized and frankly, entirely too pervasive in our diets, whereas agricultural products like fresh fruits and vegetables are not. Wheat, stripped of all nutrional value and processed into things like bread and pasta, is not a substitute for an apple or fresh spinach nutritonally on ANY level.

  5. These pertain specifically to the school meal programs. Some of these are direct links to .pdf files, others link to web sites with links to download the info. A lot of info, but hope it will help. I am still looking to find something that explains how the reimbursement process works.

    Eligibility guidance for School Meals (policy for determining and verifying eligibility for free/reduced price meals)

    Food buying guide (purchasing for school meal programs, also includes information about the meal planning patterns and other resources)

    Menu planner for school meals (different menu planning options, nutrient analysis, keeping menu planning records)
    also, a complete 10 hour curriculum for meal planning

    Offer vs. serve regulations (information about the offer vs. serve regulations – in other words, the regulation that allows students to decline some food items)

    Recipes for school meals (also includes basics meal planning patterns)

    School Lunch Fact Sheet (short Q &A fact sheet)

  6. I'm a Nutrition major, and I admittedly have a lot more to learn before earning my RD credentials, but this is something I'm passionate about and am gradually learning more and more about.

    I don't have a problem with the USDA being in charge of our nutritional criteria; it's something called Bureaucratic Inertia – when a bureaucratic organization is no longer needed – either at all or merely in the scope previously called for – the organization adopts a new set of duties to perpetuate itself. So, I think of the USDA's name as an unchanged remnant of what it used to be; basically, the USDA is becoming less about agriculture as big business takes over, but the name is stuck.

    As for the food pyramid, I really don't have a problem with it. The new one is a little funky and requires a little bit of teaching to understand it – but shouldn't we all be receiving basic nutrition lessons in school, anyway? We're not – that's the problem, not the pyramid itself.

    I think that the biggest problem is the foods that the government subsidizes. The government shouldn't be making it easier and cheaper to eat unhealthily; it should be promoting and helping its citizens afford the fresh produce and unprocessed foods.

    In general, there isn't one quick fix. The USDA's guidelines are full of loopholes and nuances that have corrupted our understanding and interpretation of sound eating.

    I think the best thing that we can do is just this – keep talking about it and keep letting these government organizations know that we want to see a big change in the future.

  7. Mrs. Q is there a way that you can make the links accessible by clicking on them instead of having to type the whole address?

  8. I don't think the USDA does a good job of guiding Americans in what to eat. Unfortunately I don't know if the Health Department could do any better, and I certainly think the FDA might do even worse (just think of what they've allowed to enter the American food system through additives and pharmaceuticals aspartame anyone?).

    In my opinion, the problem stems from large bureaucracies that are heavily lobbied and often have conflicts of interest when making decisions. I hate to point out problems without giving potential solutions, but I don't know how to change the lobbying system and bureaucracies in DC.

  9. Anonymous 12:23,

    you can highlight a link(click in front of the link, drag to highlight), copy the link (choose Copy under Edit in the browser menu, or click Ctrl & C -if you are using Windows, not sure of the Mac shortcut), then paste the link in your browser's address bar (choose Paste under Edit, or click Ctrl & V).

    Hope that helps.

  10. Anonymous 12:23:

    The best way to change the lobbying system is to reduce the power in DC. If a federal agency has less power (and it doesn't matter if the agency is the USDA or DOJ) then there's going to be less lobbying.

    The solutions to our food problems are going to vary from place to place. Local food is all well and good in sunny California, but fresh local produce is somewhat hard to find in St. Paul in December.

    The other issue is cost: Processed foods are cheap to make and cheap to prepare. Chicken nuggets are loved because you can take chicken trimmings that can't be sold as is, mix them with chemical feedstock to produce something that a minimum-wage worker can heat up and dish onto a plate. Also, unlike actual chicken pieces there are no bones to pose a liability hazard.

    It's all well and good to say we should pay more for food, and I don't disagree. The question then becomes what do we forgo so that we can serve oven-roasted lemon chicken breasts instead of breaded nuggets? Who gets fired? What do we ask teachers to do without? Who loses their job because the increased taxes killed the local economy?

  11. The government does make it harder for citizens to buy healthier food, especially those on assistance. I sell veggies and home-baked goods at a farmers' market. The government allows people to use their foodstamps and WIC money at the farmers' markets, but they make it almost impossible for the farmers to participate, and sometimes allowing redemption of the accepted coupons by the farmer under ridiculous circumstances. It's not right that an individuals can use their assistance money to buy junk food and overly processed food but not healthy fresh food.

  12. The USDA is failing if it is what allows corndogs, fruit in syrups, and iced graham crackers, and french fries to be approved.

  13. What does anyone think about how in the school building most things are under the jurisdiction of the Dept of Education, but school lunches are the domain of the USDA? I think there's a major disconnect there

  14. What the USDA is doing wrong:
    – Since the Office of School Food only has to follow the Food Pyramid (which isn't so great), french fries or potato salad can be served as the vegetable component of a school meal. This wouldn't be awful if it was only done once in a while but I've seen food service managers rely on french fries way too much because they are cheap and easy and the kids will eat them.
    – They allow the office of School Food to serve chocolate milk alongside plain milk. The kids usually choose the chocolate, which has twice as much sugar. Duh – who wouldn't?
    – If the number of meals served goes down, the food service manager can get in trouble and can even lose a staff member. Thus, her priority cannot be nutrition. Her goal is to do what it takes to get the kids to eat the meals. Usually, this means making it look as much like fast food as possible. There is no incentive for the food service manager to try offering healthier options.

  15. School Lunches should be a one choice healthy meal that is free. Columbia SC school lunches suck ass just like the City of Columbia Sucks Ass. Columbiascsucksass.blogspot

  16. It's all well and good to say that the job of the food service manager is to get the kids to eat their food (thus serving crap for lunch), but I think Mrs. Q's project is disproving that theory. The kids seem just as put-off by the mystery patties as Mrs Q is, and they can't tell the difference between the corn syrup fruit icee (bad food) and the 100% fruit juice icee (good food).

    If the fast-food all looks the same to them, and they're enjoying the options that are generally healthier (veggies from a can not included), then food service managers definitely aren't doing their job right, because clearly the kids don't care whether it's junk food or health food–they just want it to taste good.

  17. My biggest reaction is that the way that USDA's recommendations are implemented are horrific. Feeding children should be less about nutrition and more about building healthy eating habits. So while fat limits are certainly intended to have a positive effect, when schools add an icee to a fattening meal, it has the effect of lowering the fat content of the total meal below the USDA limit. Does that make it a good thing? No!

    And some of the foods are supposedly "healthier than we might think," like that breakfast pizza. Well, forget it. I don't care if it's secretly healthy. If my kids are learning that pizza for breakfast is okay, how in the world am I going to get them to eat a plain old veggie omelet?

    Hard and fast rules by their very nature create a system that can be played…gamed, even. A little 100% fruit juice here, a little french fries there…see, it's all-natural, just fruit and veggies…right???

    Either we need MANY MANY MANY more nutrition-based rules (like calorie and sugar limits), or we need many many fewer nutrition-based rules, so we can replace them with habit-based rules.

    And to the previous poster…both the corn syrup fruit icee and the 100% fruit juice icee are treats. One isn't bad and one isn't good. They are both sweet treats that should be eaten sparingly. While I'd prefer my kids get the fruit one, if they only have it once in a great while, I don't really care.

    You need to read She knows what she's talking about!

  18. How about conflict of interest. The USDA has people leading it who were previously in leadership positions in big ag. If a judge was in this position they would be required to recuse themselves.

  19. As a nutritionist, I first have to say that I love frogfarm! Thanks for speaking the truth! Second, the food pyramid, which is what school lunches are based on, is NOT sound science. With the revolving door between upper echelons of the government and big corporations like Cargill, Monsanto, etc. the science gets distorted. Wonder why there is so much sugar allowed in school lunches? Industry's heavy hand. If you are looking for some good reading, trying reading Walter Willett's information on the food pyramid. He's from Harvard and is pretty open with the idea that we aren't being told to eat a certain way because it's healthy but because there is a lot of money at stake. My classic example: forcing roughly 31 million school children a day to take pasteurized, homogenized, possibly low-fat or skim milk (with flavored varieties full of HFCS). This is bad policy, especially with so many people, particularly African-Americans and Asians, struggling with lactose. This is ludicrous!

  20. While I hope and pray for reform, sadly, I think it is at least a decade in the making.
    However, what I would like to see, as a short-term, fast fix… is to have the USDA regs no longer count potato and corn as veg, but as starch. If we could get this one change, it would be a big improvement right away. It would by no means fix everything, but I think it would be a huge step in the right direction.

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