Letter: School lunch: We’re totally ready for this mission

You published a letter by James P. Gannon last week regarding new USDA rules for public schools participating in government-subsidized breakfast and lunch programs. In his letter, Mr. Gannon characterized the new regulations as a “club of compliance” from the federal “food police.” Moreover, he said, the rules will increase costs for affected schools, including those in Rappahannock County, and potentially create a $3.2 billion price tag for the nation.

As a concerned taxpayer, I read the examples that Mr. Gannon cited from the Federal Register with interest, looking for moronic rules and capricious regulation. I found none – no tofu, no cassoulet, no filet mignon. As a matter of fact, it seems to be money well spent. Counting calories? Given the explosion in childhood obesity, it seems to be a common-sense starting point. Skim milk? Again, a way to cut calories without reducing the health benefits of the drink. Requirements for fruit each day? Even the FDA’s food pyramid, which is heavily influenced by the largest agricultural lobbies in the country, has fruits and vegetables as the basis of a healthy diet. Whole grains instead of Wonder Bread? About time, if my tax money has anything to do with it.

So, why these regulations and why now? Because we have an epidemic of childhood obesity affecting approximately 16 percent of American children. Though still young, these children suffer from elevated rates of asthma, depression, insulin-resistant diabetes and even acid reflux. As adults, their excessive weight often leads to the chronic medical conditions that overwhelm our health care system; cardiac and kidney disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. And that’s not even mentioning bad backs and worn-out joints leading to reduced or lost productivity.

Besides the suffering of the affected children, what does childhood obesity cost us as a nation? While keeping in mind Mr. Gannon’s $3.2 billion price tag over five years for the new regulations, here are some numbers to consider: According to a recent Thomson Medstat Research Brief, the cost of treating the effects of childhood obesity is estimated at about $14 billion per year. Researchers at Johns Hopkins predict that the current 70-percent rate of overweight and obese adults will increase to 86 percent in the next 20 years. I hope they are wrong.

There is another cost to childhood obesity that can no longer be ignored: national defense. An article in Men’s Health magazine, “Too Fat for a Foxhole,” mentions economists at Cornell University who calculated four years ago that 12 percent of enlistment-aged men and 35 percent of enlistment-aged women were too fat to join the U.S. Army. The rate of failure of pre-recruitment physical testing has increased 70 percent from 1995 to 2008. A group of retired military officials released a report last November (“Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve”) in which they said the current rates of obesity among recruitable 17- to 34-year-olds had the potential to profoundly affect mission readiness. I’m sure our enemies will cut us some slack.

As to creating a hardship for staff at public schools in Rappahannock County, I suspect they will take the new rules in stride, given their efforts in recent years to provide ever-healthier food prepared in ways that keep youngsters coming back for more. They are way ahead of the curve and we already can be proud of the food served in our schools.

Mr. Gannon asserts that tying federal breakfast and lunch program funding to what can only be characterized as common-sense food choices for our children renders our nation a “nanny state.” Well, I think it’s about “pram time” we took this problem seriously.

Cathleen C. Shiff

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