Friday, November 18, 2011

Frenzy over french fries and pizza

It's impossible to hate potatoes if you live in Idaho. It's simply heresy. And who doesn't like pizza for pizza's sake?

But should pizza and fat-laden french fries be standard, unlimited fare on school lunch menus? We think not.

A potato isn't a potato isn't a potato. And some pizzas stack up better nutritionally than others.

Even those of us in a state with "Famous Potatoes" on most license plates know this. Nutritionists, health professionals and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sets standards for federal subsidized school lunches nationwide, know this. The branches of the U.S. military that have adopted healthier menus for those who must be fit enough to defend the nation know it, too. But some members of Congress don't care.

Congressional Republicans this week pushed back against new USDA requirements that would make school lunches healthier by limiting starches, fats and salt. By rejecting the new guidelines, they would restore french fries and pizza to school menus. They would mandate that tomato paste, as little as one-eighth of a cup, on a pizza be counted as a vegetable serving. They would do this with a provision inserted into an agriculture-spending bill that would bar the USDA from adopting the proposed guidelines.

Deceased President Ronald Reagan, whose administration declared that ketchup was a vegetable, must be cheering somewhere in the great beyond.

Reasonable people can disagree about the one-cup-per-week limit on potatoes and starchy vegetables, including peas, corn and lima beans. But the research on the detrimental health effects of salt- and fat-laden french fries and the like is incontrovertible. Pizza, as commonly made, isn't any better.

Baked potatoes in their skins, and if not swimming in butter, are another matter.

It's true that the government can go only so far to get kids to eat more vegetables. But foods eaten when we're young become food habits when we're adults, and bad habits are hard to break. So, it's worth trying to form healthy habits.

It's hard enough for rational adults who easily become helpless in the face of a sack of fries. We ask too much of kids to exercise control in daily confrontations with french fries and pizza pushed by adults in schools whose mission is to provide them with education and tools for life.

Some school districts and elected officials say adopting the guidelines will be too expensive—a position popular in a Congress awash in no-new-taxes pledges.

But the cost of rejecting healthier school lunches will show up in the incalculable costs of an unfit nation unable to meet its responsibilities.

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