In the Bonny Eagle Middle School cafeteria in Buxton on Tuesday, students were served kale sauteed in olive oil, a salad with greens and raw carrots, a lean hamburger on a whole wheat bun and 8 ounces of skim milk.
They liked it, said Kevin Concannon, who ate lunch with students. “It was tops,” he said. “The kids were working their way through the salad bar.” When food is attractively presented, “kids can and want to eat properly.”
Almost every school in the nation would serve up that kind of healthy lunch — less processed, more nutritious and less fat, sugar and sodium — under a proposal in Congress to boost school lunch spending, Concannon said. The proposal would also increase the regulation of school food and not allow non-nutritious lunches.
A former commissioner of the Maine Department of Human Services, Concannon is undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He's in charge of the school lunch and breakfast programs, the federal food stamp program and others.
With one-third of U.S. youths overweight or obese, President Barack Obama wants the Child Nutrition Act to be reauthorized and altered, boosting the $17-billion-a-year spending by $1 billion a year for 10 years for several programs, including the lunch and breakfast programs and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. The additional $1 billion would be “the largest percentage increase in the history of the program,” Concannon said.
Before making the proposal, the Obama administration asked for recommendations from National Academy of Science doctors.
“Their recommendations are school lunches should have more fruits, more vegetables and more leafy vegetables; less fat, less sodium, more whole grains and milk that is fat-free or at most 1 percent (fat),” Concannon said. “Myself, I never pick up a salt shaker. But I know I take in far too much sodium. It's in processed food.”
If the bill passes, pancakes would have more whole grains, there would be more fruits and vegetables served in schools and more schools would be able to buy fresh produce from local farms.
Concannon said he visited a local supermarket and was “thrilled” to find fresh tomatoes grown in Madison, Maine, greenhouses. “There's a rebirth of interest in local food,” he said.
Some schools are growing vegetables and telling students that eating vegetables can make them healthier. That experience has a “magical effect” on students, Concannon said. When they know how the vegetables are grown, “they are much more prone to eat the food.”
The proposed legislation would encourage partnerships between schools and local farms, Concannon said.
It also would broaden USDA authority to regulate all food in schools that offer federally subsidized lunch programs. The healthier food rules would apply to all food sold in those schools, including vending machines and other sources.
The goal is to get rid of sugary food and drinks, Concannon said. “No junk food in the a la carte line. Pizza every day is no longer going to be acceptable.”
Both political parties support the idea because the evidence of the obesity problem is overwhelming, he said. “Recently, a retired group of military generals and admirals did a study that showed only one-fourth of American youth ages 17-24 qualified for military service,” in part because too many are overweight. “They view it as a national security issue,” Concannon said.
If the bill is passed as proposed, changes in schools could begin in October, Concannon said.
The $1 billion cost is a lot, but it's needed “to do the full job,” Concannon said. Considering how much is spent on health care, more youngsters eating healthier food is the best way of avoiding medical costs, he said.
Concannon was invited to participate in the forum at the middle school by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree.