As Governments worldwide are striving to improve their guidelines for nutrition, the Division of Child Development and Early Education at the US Department of Health and Human Services now requires that all prekindergarten lunches meet the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines — even if the lunches are bought from home. This means that some US schools have brought in ‘agents’ that search the children’s lunchboxes to check that what they contain is nutritious enough. Sound like a good idea? Well given what a lot of children are eating today and, ‘Big Brother’ style invasions aside, it might be, assuming we can trust the soundness of government nutritional advice.

Government agents invade kindergartens

However, a recent incident in at West Hoke elementary school in North Carolina would add to the litany of reasons that say otherwise. When a 4 year-old girl is told her own lunch is not nutritious enough and then given 3 chicken nuggets instead of a turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips and apple juice, something appears to be seriously wrong with the system.  Whilst her packed lunch may not have ticked all the nutritional boxes, it beggars belief how chicken nuggets can be considered a better choice.  And worst of all – her mother was then charged for the items deemed to be missing by the ‘agent’! This has the hallmark of the big food corporations stamped all over it again.

So what exactly are the USDA guidelines for creating a nutritious lunch? Surprise, surprise, they’re all based around the ChooseMyPlate guidelines for ‘healthy’ eating, which we critiqued in January. Apparently, lunches must consist of one serving of meat, one serving of milk, one serving of grains, and two servings of fruit or vegetables — even if they are brought from home. Apparently, in the New Nanny State: one-size fits all, and processed, Big Food offerings are high up on the recommended eating list for our kids!

A further irony is that the kids in West Hoke school are pictured holding cards which spell out “Help fight heart disease”. But how is ditching home-made meals and being forced to consume pasteurised, homogenised USDA-approved cow's milk and chemically-laced processed meats that promote chronic disease considered healthy? This underpins the desperate need for real nutrition information that benefits the individual and not the nanny police state with its corporate drivers. Mike Adams from Natural News covers this aspect further in his excellent article on this story. It’s time that more schools realised that food and nutrition education is just as important as maths and grammar. Instead of having government agents policing the lunchroom, it’s time for communities to take back their power and be more responsible for what happens to and for the children in their care.

Nutritional sense or corporate profiteering?

The USDA guidelines may sound nutritionally reasonable to some, but what happens if you’re a vegetarian, gluten sensitive, lactose intolerant or just don’t like milk? Grains and dairy are two of the most common ingredients that cause food intolerances, sensitivities and allergies.  But they are also the favoured mainstay of Big Food, which seems hell bent on getting young kids hooked on their processed wheat and dairy based foods from the earliest possible age.

The emphasis on grains, whether whole or refined, along with the foods that typically accompany them, does little but fuel the obesity and diabetes epidemic sweeping the Western world.  Other cultures that are adopting Western diets are of course increasingly suffering the same fate. Without adequate protein and good fats, starchy carbohydrates like grains and potatoes are to the metabolism what paper is to fire. Flaring intensely for a brief period and then burning out just as quickly, causing the need to repeat the process over and over again during the day. Great for business, bad for blood sugar balance, and a recipe set to tip a large sector of the population, later in life, into insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes.  

Whilst whole grains burn slower and are preferable for their additional vitamins, minerals and fibre, they all contain lectins, long known for their anti-nutritive properties and potential toxicity, which, in mainstream dietetics and medicine, are rarely acknowledged and little recognised for the negative impacts on health. Added to which, grains contain significant amounts of gluten or related proteins.  Around 12% of the Western population who consume wheat as a staple, are now thought to be gluten sensitive, a condition that can lead to a wide variety of serious problems ranging from coeliac disease, irritable bowel syndrome or disease, deficiency diseases caused by malabsorption — and even colon cancer.  And 12% is probably a conservative estimate. The sensitivity or intolerance to the substantial amounts of gluten we find today in grain-based foods is becoming the new silent epidemic, ignored by so many – but right at the heart of the reason that gastro-intestinal disturbances are the leading reason people visit their primary care physician or GP.

Put the lectins and the gluten together in grain-based foods and food ingredients and you have a recipe for a monumental health disaster — one that is being played out in front of us in contemporary, Western society. But a near information blackout in the mainstream media and from conventional healthcare (doctors and dieticians) regarding the effects of these hidden ingredients means that the majority of the population continue to munch away, ignorant of the inflammatory fire smoldering inside them and inching ever closer to chronic disease with every bite. Instead, we are told repeatedly to eat our grains at every meal, and should we dare exclude them, we risk a range of health challenges as a result of cutting from our diets an essential food group.  The healthy plate guidelines from governments further reinforce this dangerous and unsubstantiated message. With carbohydrates being so addictive and hard for people to give up, few really benefit, except for Big Food who peddle the stuff and Big Pharma, who step in to ‘clean up’ (both metaphorically and financially) once the body loses the battle to stay healthy.

Schools and communities in the driving seat

With nutritional research and science clearly leagues ahead of government advice, which has the footprint of corporate greed all over it, schools should be taking a lead on the education front. Education is after all the core remit. Schools have access to children in their most fertile and formative years, when a lifetime’s conditioning is being forged and when they could be a massive force for preventative healthcare. 

Whilst the North Carolina school may be trying to help families provide their kids with balanced and nutritious lunches, having agents police their lunchboxes is very wide of the mark, particularly if the agents are trained only to approve a misinformed checklist. If more schools followed the model successfully in practice at North London’s Chestnuts Primary School, we’d likely be able to measure a decline in chronic disease rates among children who have appropriate healthy eating patterns imprinted on them at a young age.

The best available demonstration of what should really happen?

For those who have yet had a chance to read our January 2011 feature on Chestnuts, that includes a series of video interviews, we urge you to check it out.  The unique project has been super successful in providing children with locally sourced, fresh and mainly organic meals. Combining this with teaching kids to handle and prepare food and learn about nutrition means that they have seen huge benefits in the children’s health, behavior and learning abilities. The school has shot up in the ratings charts, aggressive behavior has been all but eradicated and they are also seeing benefits in their financial bottom line. The meals are not only truly nutritious, but they’re cheaper too and they have the added bonus of benefiting smaller local farmers and traders. The experience of Chestnuts is now beginning to be repeated in a few other schools, but it’s high time the approach went viral! It’s worth noting that this brilliant success story has had no UK government support. It is the result of the dedication and determination of head teacher, Cal Shaw, with the expert guidance of Kemi Atijosan from Eagle Solutions.  

Call to Action

For those parents or guardians with an interest in positively influencing a school’s approach to nutrition, assuming it is substandard:

  • Check school lunch boxes or school meals against government guidelines (e.g. UK, USA, France, Australia) and remember that there’s too much emphasis on grains and dairy and not enough on protein, non-starchy vegetables, healthy fats and water.
  • To reduce or eliminate grains from your diet make sure you replace them with fresh, unprocessed vegetables and fruit. Vegetables and fruits are a good source of carbohydrate (the fuel your body needs for energy) and also give you essential nutrients, protective plant chemicals and fibre, which is crucial for healthy gut function. Make sure at least a third of your plate is made up of non-starchy vegetables at every meal (yes, they’re yummy at breakfast too!) and that you eat a rainbow of colours every day. But take care to limit starchy vegetables (e.g. pumpkin, sweet potatoes/rutabaga, swede, carrots, plantains, beets) and keep potatoes to a bare minimum, definitely avoiding fried chips.
  • Eliminate sugar from your own and your children’s diets. Sugar is non-nutritive, addictive and a sworn enemy of health. It’s a hidden component is processed foods because the food industry knows how addictive it is. Eat sugar and you literally turn your proteins to junk in the body – proteins that are needed for building healthy cells, muscles and bones. You also set yourself up for blood sugar imbalance, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. It’s just not worth it.  
  • To eliminate dairy, ensure that sufficient sources of calcium are provided by dark green leafy vegetables, like kale, spring greens, dark cabbage, bok choy (pak choi) and chard. Broccoli, collards, Chinese cabbage, mustard greens and okra are also very good sources of well-absorbed calcium. Milk and dairy products are not as good for your health as marketing campaigns would have you think. Many people are unable to absorb calcium from dairy products anyway and despite what you hear from conventional sources, very few people are actually deficient because we have evolved to absorb calcium from many different sources.
  • If you’re a parent, involve yourself in the school’s governance, join the Parent Teachers Association or equivalent and speak up. Think ‘out of the box’ like Chestnuts school have done about ways to increase the nutrition advice, education and food quality.

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