School lunches and sugar- from a Canadian's perspective

Saturday, July 10, 2010

There is much going on these days to combat the problem of school lunches in the US and Britain. From Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, that got so much attention, to some lesser-known but still important cogs in that big wheel, it really has me as a Canadian, scratching my head a bit.

For my American visitors, let me give you a bit of a primer from my perspective as a Canadian living in Ontario. There is no such thing as "school lunches" here (to my knowledge). The state does not get involved in feeding our kids lunch at school. Every child is to be sent to school with his or her own lunch and snacks. I suppose from the perspective of a parent who earns little income, knowing that your child will be fed lunch every day must be an enormous weight off your shoulders. We are fortunate enough to be able to financially manage a lunch for the boy, so I can't imagine the stress of not knowing how you could make that happen as a parent. Unfortunately though, it's a "free" lunch at what cost? is a blog about a woman ("Mrs. Q")who is eating the food served to the children in the school where she works for a full year. It's quite a commitment, considering there's no way I (or probably most of the parents of said children) would ever want to eat what the school system serves up to its youth. For parents like me who work super hard at making their children's food nutritious and keeping chemicals and sugar to a bare minimum, looking at that as my only option would be very scary.

In this particular post, called "Sugar and school lunch" written by a guest blogger called Christa O'Brien on Mrs. Q's blog, there is some rather shocking and disturbing information about how big lobby groups can have a major impact on what your child is eating. This is just a small and hideously frightening portion of the post and of the true story...

"...Table sugar as we know it comes from sugar cane and sugar beets. The domestic supply of refined sugar is about 50-50 cane and beets. About 10% of the entire domestic sugar supply comes from the state of Florida alone. In 1934 the US government was eager to shore up agriculture prices as a result of the depression. They created the country's first U.S. Sugar policy. This policy is still in place today. The policy sets a price floor for sugar that is grown and sold domestically. Currently the floor price is about three times higher than the world market price. The policy also sets limits on imported sugar by country of origin. Many sugar cane and sugar beet farms in the US are controlled directly by the refiners and so high prices are a huge profit booster for these companies. The price floor encourages overproduction which is of course detrimental for the soil but also world agriculture prices. So much extra sugar depresses world prices and sugar producers in other countries struggle to break even after the excess US sugar is dumped abroad.

'But', you ask, 'if sugar is so expensive in this country, Then wouldn't that make sugary foods like candy and soda more expensive thus regulating supply and demand?' Yes, in fact it did for a number of years (and still does for many various industries that rely on crystallized sugar). Now enter high-fructose corn syrup.

The way the government regulates prices on sugar is altogether different than how it regulates other commodities like corn and soybeans and cotton. With corn for example, the government subsidizes farmers directly. This also encourages overproduction, but because no price floor is set, the more corn there is the lower the price. This situation makes corn very plentiful and very inexpensive. The government has been subsidizing farmers directly since the New Deal Era, but as a result of the recession of the mid-1970s food prices soared and so did subsidies. The government did this specifically to lower the price of food. And boy did it work. Americans currently spend less than 10% of their annual income on food. That is less than virtually all industrialized nations.

In relation to the sugar issue, there was a lot of cheap corn lying around that needed to be consumed. The problem was that regular old corn syrup isn't a good sugar substitute because it doesn't taste as sweet as table sugar to the human tongue. But in 1957 scientists further refined regular corn syrup (almost entirely glucose) and broke the syrup down into essentially liquid fructose. The original corn syrup was then mixed with the liquid fructose and boom, high-fructose corn syrup. HFCS was amazing because it was easily transportable and worked perfectly in all wet applications like soda and batter based baked goods.

Now, every strong commodity needs a good lobby in Washington, right? In 1943 the Sugar Association was formed, as they say on their website, to promote "…[the] educating [of] health professionals, media, governmental officials and the public about sugar's goodness". They happen to be a very strong lobby. Some recent activities of the Sugar Association: in 2003 the WHO was set to unveil a new set of dietary guidelines. One of the recommendations was that not more than 10% of a person's daily caloric intake should come from sugar. The Sugar lobby was furious. They contacted WHO directly saying that they had a report from the Institute of Medicine stating that it was perfectly safe to have sugar comprise 25% of a person's daily calories. Furthermore, the Sugar lobby contacted then US Health Secretary Tommy Thompson. They recommended to Thompson that all further US funding of WHO be dependent upon WHO's agreement that they base their recommendations on science. And through these actions, WHO was pressured into silence on the sugar matter. They changed the wording on their recommendations about sugar to reference a numbers of time per day that sugar could be eaten but no amounts are mentioned. Even Harvey Fineberg, the then president at the IOM who oversaw the study the Sugar Association was referencing, contacted US Health Secretary Tommy Thompson to say that his institute's report was being misinterpreted.

This omission of sugar in the national food conversation is directly related to School Lunch. The Sugar Association has successfully lobbied the USDA to remove any mention of added sugars in their food pyramid and other nutritional literature. I was surprised to see this as truth when I went to Remember when you were in grade school learning about the food pyramid and there was a tiny triangle at the top that said 'use added fats, oils and sweets sparingly'? That tiny sliver is no longer there. Today's food pyramid talks only about fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and meat. But with so many foods like 'drinkable fruit' that likely has added sugar, a lot of pertinent information is getting lost in the shuffle. Even the new Child Nutrition Act that is now working its way through the halls of Washington mentions no regulation of sugar.

Mrs. Q has talked a lot about funny grains popping into a meal, like an extra piece of bread here or a cookie there. Schools are required to adhere to the food pyramid serving requirements when planning school lunches. But with sugar being virtually removed from the governmental dialogue on food suddenly a school could technically view a cookie in the same way they would a serving of rice. Any normal thinking person would see there is a problem in the way the national guidelines are being executed. "
Those big businesses are in place because people buy their products. You are not powerless—you have a voice. Every time you shop, you vote. If people don't buy the garbage products, the food companies will have to find a healthier solution. It is the people who dictate what sells, so if enough people speak out, things will change. Shop...and vote...for change.


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