THE BLOG
09/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The White House, Food, and Children

On Aug. 3, advertisements went up at a Washington, DC, Metro Station showing an 8-year-old girl saying "President Obama's daughters get healthy school lunches. Why don't I?" Within 24 hours, they sparked a media debate focusing on the substantive question about the healthfulness of school meals and, even more so, on a question of propriety: Is it fair to mention the First Family in an advertisement?

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The substantive issue was clear: Children's diets are terrible. Fast food and junk food are everywhere. School lunch programs can, in theory, provide healthful meals that help make up for unhealthful foods served elsewhere. Unfortunately, most schools are not up to the task. According to a 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture study, meals served at 80 percent of schools are too high in fat, especially saturated fat -- the kind that leads to heart disease. America's children have been sucked into an undertow of unhealthy foods, and, not surprisingly, one in six is overweight.

The results are disastrous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forecast that one in three children born since the year 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in life. Many children have the first changes of atherosclerosis while they are still in high school.

Part of the problem is that school menus are not based entirely on health considerations. They are part of a vast marketing program for agricultural commodities. When beef prices fall, the USDA buys up millions of pounds of beef. When cheese prices slide, the government buys up cheese. Soon, roast beef, cheeseburgers, and cheese pizza show up on school menus, not because these foods are good for kids--far from it. Rather, children can be easily induced to eat these high-cholesterol foods, eliminating unwanted surpluses and allowing farm prices to rise again.

When Congress takes up the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act later this year, it can decide to give children healthier choices. A school offering a greasy cheeseburger (5 grams of saturated fat, 268 calories) should also provide a veggie burger (0 grams of saturated fat, 230 calories). When chicken nuggets (5 grams of saturated fat, 240 calories) are offered, there should be a cholesterol-free veggie chili option (0 grams saturated fat, 144 calories).

But many of the 31 million children who participate in the National School Lunch Program have trouble finding healthful meals at school. Despite a 2007 American Medical Association resolution calling for vegetarian meals in schools, most schools continue to focus their menus on meat and cheese. The President's family, to its credit, chose Sidwell Friends, a private school that offers not only a top education, but also a healthy vegetarian option for every student every day.

So when is it fair to mention the President's children? The issue first came up during the Inauguration, when J. Crew cashed in heavily on First Family's wardrobe choices, rapidly followed by Beanie Babies named after the girls. Soon the White House had to set rules for its own behavior and that of everyone else. Clearly, the Metro ads play by the rules. They do not use of the children's names or images, and in no way intrude on their privacy. And their message is important: Every child, no matter how disadvantaged, deserves a healthy meal.

It is Congress, not the President, that needs to act. But the President can lead the way for children. So far, he has not taken up the issue. The President's choice of Tom Vilsack to head the USDA has meant a continuation of the policy of dumping meat and cheese into schools. On July 31, Vilsack announced another $243 million in purchases, saying in a press release, "The Obama Administration is committed to pursuing all options to help dairy farmers."

The President and Vice President have kept up an appearance of being "regular guys," rather than healthy examples, most notably during their inexplicable but well-publicized motorcade to Ray's Hell Burger, a Virginia restaurant known for high-cholesterol food.

That said, the President deserves a measure of patience. After all, the administration had barely arrived in the White House when it had to deal with a tanking economy, a failing health care system, and changing battlegrounds in the Middle East. It is hard to imagine it could also have given attention to children's health in this short time frame. Even so, if we are going to tackle health care, we need to understand why so many children and adults are in such poor shape. Every child in every school deserves a healthful lunch every day, and Congress needs to make that happen.

To join the call for better foods for children, visit HealthySchoolLunches.org.

Neal Barnard, M.D., is a nutrition researcher and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.