LITTLE ROCK — Sen. Blanche Lincoln, currently occupying center stage in the debate over health care reform, is about to start hearing from proponents of a different health-related cause: The push for healthier lunches in public schools.
In the coming months, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, chaired by Lincoln, will take up the Child Nutrition Act, which regulates the National School Lunch Program and other federal nutrition programs and is up for reauthorization in 2010.
The Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has been gathering names on an online petition urging Lincoln and others in Congress to help schools provide healthy food options.
“We’re asking that vegetarian options be included as part of the national school lunch and breakfast programs and that provisions for soy milk and other plant-based milks are made, and basically to make funding available for that to happen,” said Dr. Ruby Lathon, the committee’s nutrition policy manager.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires schools receiving lunch subsidies to meet nutritional standards, which include offering fruits and vegetables, but schools are not required to offer vegetarian entrees and nondairy milks. Lathon said the physicians are not asking for mandates but would like to see additional incentive money made available to schools willing to offer new options.
“Most schools provide at least two entree options every day anyway, so we’re looking at, perhaps one of those could be a vegetarian option,” she said.
Two Arkansas doctors, Tara Hickman of Fayetteville and Sadia Malik of Little Rock, plan to deliver a copy of the group’s petition to Lincoln’s office in Little Rock on Thursday. They expect to have about 110,000 names on the petition.
Asked Friday for a comment, Lincoln said in a statement issued by her office, “A top priority for the committee is reauthorization of our child nutrition programs, which fight hunger and promote health among tens of millions of children in Arkansas and across the country. We must improve the nutritional quality of the meal benefits provided through these programs.
“With obesity, diabetes and nutrition-related chronic diseases epidemic among us, we must take steps to provide foods that nourish and promote the development of our children. As the committee moves forward with reauthorizing federal child nutrition programs, we will explore opportunities to provide healthier, more nutritious foods through the school lunch program,” Lincoln said.
Hickman said the issue of child nutrition is related to the health care debate currently occupying Congress’ attention.
“A lot of chronic illness stems early on from poor eating habits,” she said. “Overall you’re going to going to decrease the amount of money spent in the health care system if we can provide healthier options to kids early on.”
The national obesity rate has more than doubled since 1990, with 26.6 percent of the population considered obese. In Arkansas, the rate has increased 6.3 percent since 1990, with 29.5 percent of the state’s residents considered obese, according to a report released last month by three health associations.
The report ranked Arkansas 40th in the nation in overall health, up from 50th in 1998.
The more students are exposed to healthy eating options at school, “the more they get used to seeing those types of food and then choosing those on their own as well,” Hickman said.
The additional options would also benefit students who are lactose intolerant or have food allergies, she said.
Arkansas has taken steps on its own to improve nutritional options in schools. In 2005, at the request of then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, the state Education Department began requiring healthier foods in school vending machines and banned the machines from elementary schools.
Department spokeswoman Julie Thompson said the state does not require schools to offer vegetarian entrees on a daily basis.
At its annual convention in Little Rock on Friday, the Arkansas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm lobby, adopted a policy of opposing programs like “Meatless Monday,” which encourages people to go without meat on Mondays.
Spokesman Gregg Patterson said the Farm Bureau opposes restrictive diets in school menus but does not oppose giving students more choices. In fact, the organization supports expansion of the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, a pilot program that seeks to put a wider variety of fresh produce in schools.
Lathon said the physicians are “absolutely” not seeking to restrict students’ options.
“In addition to what’s already being served, there would be an option right next to that that would be available that’s vegetarian, so it doesn’t impede any choices. It just basically provides an additional choice,” she said.
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