Protecting our sweet kids and grandkids

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 23, 2024

By Francis Koster

Our local politicians and civil servants have a new tool available that can increase our ability to raise healthy school kids, support local farmers, lower healthcare spending and strengthen our local economy. Thanks to an upgrade in a set of federal regulations announced in April, we have some opportunities to improve what we feed our schoolkids. While not perfect, the new regulations can have us taking several baby steps.  

As you have heard me say before, one out of five of our K-12 school students are obese, resulting in an average life expectancy 14 years less than it would be if they were of healthy weight, and each will have around $1,000 more in annual healthcare costs. The challenge is figuring out what to do about this problem — which gets worse as the students become adults.  

These new regulations offer a solution — they require that school lunches have fewer harmful ingredients and more healthy ingredients. The schools have to begin to make changes in when school starts in fall of 2025 and have to fully meet the new standards by 2027.   

The first focus is food additives. Most people know that when you eat a peach, you like what you are eating because it is naturally sweet. One peach has about 13 grams of sugar in it. When you make a peach pie, you add around 2/3 of a cup of sugar to the whole pie, so when you slice your pie wedge, it has 25 grams of sugar. That extra 12 units is “added sugar.” Added sugar is usually bait to make us eat more of something that others make money selling.

The new school lunch regulations reduce the amount of allowed added sugar so that no more than 10 percent of the weekly calories served a child can be from added sugar.  

Too much salt is another food additive that harms kids’ health. The new regulations say that the level has to go down to around 85 percent of today’s levels. The new regulations also say 80 percent of the grains used in cooking and baking have to be “whole grain-rich.” 

There are two other blessings in the new regulation. The first is that any school system in any state is now free to set their own nutritional standard higher than the standard in the federal Department of Agriculture regulations. There is some great evidence that this is a good investment. The research shows that in states that exceeded USDA standards, schoolkids obesity rate went down 12.3 percentage points compared with states that did not exceed USDA standards. 

The second blessing is that your school system can become a stimulus to local economic growth by buying locally produced vegetables, fruit, meat or fish. 

Back in 2010, researchers at the University of Minnesota Agriculture Extension Office took a look at the economic impact if school systems bought as much of the food they served their students as they could to from local farmers. They found that sourcing their school food locally had a significant positive impact on the local economy.

The (skinny) bottom line here is that we have a win/win/win available to us if we can give the schools enough support to get them them through, and take full advantage of, this change.  

We can reduce obesity, increase grades, increase life expectancy and boost the local economy.

Or we can continue to increase obesity, lower grades, shorten life expectancy and buy school food from other nations rather than down the street.

This is not a Democrats vs. Republican issue. This is a chance to work together to take care of our kids and grandkids. If we work together, America wins.