The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t let lobbyists decide what your children eat at school

Omar Bonidle, a 7th grader at Maple Manor School in Hazleton, Penn., getting breakfast at school on Sept. 2. (Ellen F. O'Connell/Associated Press)

FIVE YEARS ago, Congress brought some healthfulness to the National School Lunch Program , which spends more than $10 billion a year to feed about 30 million K-12 students. The law is up for renewal this month, and the School Lunch Industrial Complex is trying to make it less healthful again. Its arguments in favor of lowering nutritional quality for the nation's children don't add up, and Congress should reject them.

The overhaul five years ago favored whole grains over heavily processed carbohydrates, less salt, and a minimum serving of fruits or vegetables per meal. It limited what schools could sell in vending machines and à la carte lines, preventing schools from circumventing the rules by allowing fast-food junk — often from national chains — to be sold right outside the cafeteria. These rules weren't thrown together willy-nilly by vegan activists; they were developed carefully after an independent expert review at the Institute of Medicine.

And school lunches have gotten healthier. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found last month that the number of schools offering two or more fruits and vegetables in their meals has shot up. Nearly one-third of schools now have salad bars.

But the school lunch lobby has been waging a rear-guard action ever since the rules started to phase in. It fought to continue counting tomato paste as a vegetable. It fought against rules that discouraged feeding children too many starchy potatoes. The lobby's current demands include curtailing the whole-grain and sodium requirements and loosening the rule that children must take fruits or vegetables with their meals.

The lobbyists claim that the regulations promote waste because vegetables get discarded, that some healthy-enough dishes have been ruled unacceptable and that the rules will become even more onerous in coming years. Much of the "evidence" is anecdotal, but the few credible studies offer a mixed picture. One suggested that students do throw more out but also are eating more fruits and vegetables. Another found that waste has decreased. A third found that students taking vegetables are eating significantly larger amounts of them and that more students are consuming fruit.

Generally, school cafeterias are expected to be self-supporting, which led many of them to offer junk food. With healthier meals on offer, they worry that fewer students ineligible for free or reduced-cost lunches are buying cafeteria food, reducing revenue. But this is no excuse to skimp on health. Wealthier families can send their children to school with junk in a paper bag if they like, but that's no reason for the government to relax its demands. The Agriculture Department is offering cafeterias guidance and funding to make healthy meals more appetizing. That, not attacking the fair request that they feed students better food, should be their focus.

If lawmakers worry that cafeterias can’t meet federal standards under current budget constraints, they should raise the federal reimbursement for school lunches rather than go back to meals more likely to induce obesity and heart problems.

Read more on this issue:

The Post’s View: At last, the District’s public schools will get a new school-lunch vendor

Kathleen Parker: A gift for the world’s girls — from Michelle Obama

Dana Milbank: The sugar lobby’s sour tactics

Caron Gremont: Teaching our kids healthy eating must start early