As childhood obesity rates soar in the United States, the issue has been under considerable scrutiny. There are several forces at play, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Fresh fruits and vegetables are often more expensive than their frozen, canned or dried counterparts. In addition, many minority and low-income neighborhoods are food deserts, lacking grocery stores and farmers' markets. As a result, residents shop primarily in convenience stores, where shelves are stocked largely with processed foods.
This creates a food culture that is inherited by children, favoring highly processed foods, loaded with fat, sugars, and synthetic additives. Due to these factors, children living in food deserts typically have little access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and are more likely to be obese.
Some schools in impoverished neighborhoods have been shifting this trend, thanks to the federal Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Now, 7,500 of the lowest-income schools across the country are serving small cups of fresh blueberries, kiwi, and beets. The goal is to create a healthy life-long habit for children to eat a variety of fresh produce. Many of these children wouldn't otherwise have access to these fresh foods.
What is not to love about this program? Sadly, the preserved-food industry lobbyists with a financial interest in kids eating their foods is pouring money into campaigns to feed children other less fresh foods.
“We’re losing an opportunity to educate youngsters about fruit and vegetable consumption in all forms,” said Joe Clayton, a spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute, an organization that promotes its own interests.
A war is now raging in Washington involving the federal snack program, and its $177 million budget. The program requires serving fresh fruits and vegetables, as written by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a big fresh foods defender. Now that Harkin is retiring, the preserved-food lobby is likely to win out. The fate of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program may be similar, also due to pressure from food lobbyists.
The preserved-food lobbyists don't want to lose out on revenue from these future grocery shoppers with food programs that can help shape the eating habits of these children into adulthood. Clayton fails mention the fact school lunches programs already serve frozen and canned vegetables, getting a slice of the $16 billion the government spends on school lunches. Meanwhile, fresh foods are largely underrepresented in school lunch programs.
A bill was recently introduced to expand the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to include canned, frozen, dried and pureed fruits and vegetables. If successful, the program's original intent would be lost.
Corporate interests have a history of undermining programs created to promote child nutrition and health. Do you remember the ketchup is a vegetable controversy during the Reagan administration? Proposals sought to loosen the standards of what foods or condiments were counted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) as vegetables after subsidy cuts. As a result, the program became more "flexible" in planning meals for school lunches, with a modest amount of relish counting as a vegetable.
Meanwhile, Michelle Obama has been working to shift the American food culture and has even managed to have a video clip of her speaking about turnips to go viral. Although there is a healthy food movement underway, a powerful process-food lobby has been working against school programs serving up a helping of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Image credit: Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.