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New school meal rules receive widespread defense

Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, the Food Research & Action Center, and retired and current military officials concerned about obesity have risen to the defense of the school meal rules that some students and Republican officeholders have criticized.

Branstad recently told Radio Iowa that the changes in school lunch menus can help Iowa reach his goal of becoming the healthiest state in the country.

“More home-grown fruits and vegetables and more whole grain items is clearly what is needed, along with good exercise,” Branstad said.

Teresa Nece, a dietician who teaches at Iowa State University, also told Radio Iowa that the menus need time to work.

“In schools we have to teach habits,” Nece said. “To make that type of a change — to increase fruits and vegetables to students — we really have to look at how long does it take a student to learn to like something and science tells us it can takes as many as a dozen times for children to learn to like a new food item.”

Branstad also announced his support for a bill introduced by Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, to provide loans to schools to upgrade their kitchens.

Latham, who is in a tight re-election race with Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, said that the school lunch rules are “a work in progress,” but that the obesity problem needs to be addressed because too many young people cannot qualify for the military.

The Food Research & Action Center said in a news release that the bill by Reps. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., and Steve King, R-Iowa, to repeal the new school nutrition guidelines and any other attempt to outlaw the setting of calorie limits are “misguided, ignore science and good sense, neglect to acknowledge that children can now get additional servings of fruits and vegetables, and risk the future health of America’s school children.”

FRAC’s September 27 statement is important because the organization is known much more for its campaigns to provide money for low-income people to buy food than for healthy-eating advocacy. FRAC, for example, has opposed attempts to impose limits on what food stamp beneficiaries can buy.

“The new standards incorporate scientific recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine and numerous nutrition and public health experts, and bring school meals in line with the nation’s dietary guidelines,” said FRAC President Jim Weill.

“Developing nutrition policy in school meals should be left to experts and not to the congressional political process,” Weill said. “These are strong, science-based standards that are aimed at meeting the nutrition needs of all students.”

He also noted that children from low-income families are vulnerable to obesity and that the school lunch programs can “remedy nutritional shortfalls” in their diets.

Noting that King has written in an op-ed that children are hungry by the end of the school day, Weill said that “lots of children are hungry after school — a function of how children develop and not of new calorie limits.”

Weill also pointed out that “Congress has broadened the reach of the Afterschool Meal Program so every state can offer children who are engaged in afterschool activities a snack or (depending on the length of the program) a meal.”

“Mission: Readiness,” a group of retired generals and admirals who lobbied hard for the adoption of the new school meal rules, issued a statement on September 27 that defended the new rules.

“We need to keep in mind that the childhood obesity crisis is serious and is not going away,” said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, a member of the executive advisory council of Mission: Readiness.

“Any retreat from these new standards would mean turning our backs on the obesity crisis and on the future well-being of our children," he said. “With one in four young adults too overweight to serve our country in uniform, failure is not an option.”

“Schools should not undermine parents’ efforts to instill better eating habits in their children,” Seip continued. “Today, hundreds of retired generals and admirals stand alongside nutritionists and parents across America who believe that children deserve to eat healthful meals at school based on sound dietary science, not politics or special interests.

Mission: Readiness also released a statement from Assistant Defense Secretary for Health Affairs Jonathan Woodson praising the group’s efforts on school meals.

Woodson noted that the Defense Department is trying to establish a healthier environment for its troops by updating menu standards in mess halls and putting healthier food choices in vending machines and snack bars.

“Military children are an important focus of our campaign, and we hope that they and their peers in schools off base are provided with healthier options so they have the opportunity to make better choices,” Woodson said.

“No one who wants to be a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine wakes up at age 17 and suddenly finds himself or herself overweight,” he continued. “Good eating habits are learned early in life and are shaped by parents and the environment where children spend the better part of their day. We all need to work together to ensure that America’s young men and women grow up healthy and fit to serve their country in whatever way they choose, whether in or out of uniform.”