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Stirring up nutrition goals for farm bill

Times Staff Writer

When Ann Cooper took over the lunch program for Berkeley schools, she found children eating chicken nuggets and Tater Tots. (“Pre-flash fried with corn fillers and corn coating,” she tut-tutted.) There was also canned fruit cocktail and chocolate milk. (“Both with high-fructose corn syrup.”)

Lunches averaged 800 to 900 calories -- much higher than federal guidelines -- and were loaded with salt. “That is just crazy in a world of obesity,” Cooper said.

Cooper instituted roasted chicken, a salad bar, fresh fruit and vegetables, and low-fat milk at the Bay Area school district. The onetime gourmet chef and other nutrition experts believe such healthful foods should be served at all schools, but point to a major obstacle: Congress.

Parents, nutrition advocates and physicians want Congress to dramatically overhaul the farm bill -- which sets the nation’s agricultural agenda every five years -- to put better food on children’s cafeteria trays. The drive to rewrite the bill stalled last week in the Senate, possibly delaying it until next year. But advocates said the setback would give them time to make the case that the bill is to blame for much of the unhealthful food in schools.

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“Farm bills always favor the status quo when they’re rushed,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. “This gives us some time to educate people.”

For decades, farm bill battles have been waged over subsidies. But this year, nutrition has also been at the forefront.

The $288-billion Senate bill would spend more on fruits and vegetables, but children’s health advocates say that it still tilts much more toward subsidizing farmers than promoting healthful food. They say they are concerned about rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other diet-driven diseases. Organizations such as the President’s Cancer Panel have directly linked agricultural policy and cancer.

For Cooper, who calls herself the “renegade lunch lady,” the priority is children’s health: “If we want to significantly impact the long-term health of our children, we need to change the food in the center of the plate, the entree. The farm bill negatively impacts the entree by subsidizing food we don’t necessarily eat, like corn and soy. There’s so much fat hidden in these highly processed foods that end up on our kids’ plates.”

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Critics such as Cooper point to the system of subsidies for corn, soy and other commodity crops, which are cheaply converted into sweeteners and fats for processed foods. The subsidies, they say, make fast food less expensive than fresh fruits and vegetables. The government also buys much of the excess crops, which are then turned into foods like cheese, pizzas and corn dogs and sent to schools for lunches. On each school day in 2006, more than 30 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program.

Federal officials who buy commodities for school lunches counter that these purchases make up only 20% of a meal. Food industry lobbyists also say that the problem is not the subsidies or their products, but how those products are used, marketed and consumed. Other analysts contend that ending subsidies won’t end overproduction.

But a variety of critics, including the White House, are targeting the expensive subsidy system. Some argue that it hurts the environment, others question the cost to taxpayers and those such as Cooper focus on public health.

Lawmakers must return to the farm bill before payments to certain crops run out by the 2008 harvest season. The Senate and House bill also faces a veto threat from President Bush, who says that it would increase payouts.

The Senate bill would funnel about $42 billion to farmers at a time when many crop prices are at record highs. Average farm income hovers around $80,000, while nationwide the average household earns about $60,000. Only about one-third of the nation’s farmers receive subsidies, about $26 billion of which are “direct payments” that go to farms because at one time a major commodity, such as cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat or rice, was grown there -- even if that crop is no longer raised.

But, for the first time in the eight decades that Congress has debated farm bills, there is the possibility of significant change, some of it driven by concerns over children’s health.

Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) say that children face a shorter life span than their parents and point to improved diet as one way to reverse that setback. They want to amend the Senate bill to dismantle agricultural subsidies and plow $2 billion of the savings into farmers markets and organic farming, more fruit and vegetable purchases for schools, expanding nutrition education, and supplying schools and military bases with nutritious food from local farms.

Their amendment, the Farm Ranch Equity Stewardship and Health Act, would also funnel $1.5 billion to fruit, nut and vegetable farmers who produce nearly half of all farm goods sold but have received little support in previous farm bills.

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The Senate bill, even without the amendments, would make significant changes. Under agriculture committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the bill was drawn up to send unprecedented amounts of money to bolster the production of fruits, vegetables and organic crops.

The bill would expand a pilot program Harkin began with the 2002 farm bill that provides elementary schools with fresh fruit and vegetables for snacks. The program, which started in four states and now serves 175,000 children in 14 states, would be available to 4.5 million children nationwide, with funds jumping from $9 million to $1 billion over five years -- “a quantum leap,” Harkin said.

Those changes would have a direct impact on Los Angeles children, said Elizabeth Medrano, an organizer for the Healthy School Food Coalition, which has worked for the last six years to improve school lunches. “We see access to healthy food, daily, as a health benefit, a prevention program,” she said.

Medrano said that the Los Angeles Unified School District had made major changes since 2003, when the school board adopted steps to prevent obesity by improving cafeteria offerings.

But recent studies highlight the challenge Medrano and other advocates face. A report released this month by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health concludes that 1 in 5 students in the county are overweight. Nationally, childhood obesity rates have tripled since the late 1970s. And researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health predicted that 24% of children will be obese by 2015, compared with about 16% today.

In a school district like Los Angeles, which is the nation’s second-largest and has high numbers of low-income students, providing strong nutritional support is essential, Medrano said. Whether that happens could depend on the kind of farm bill Congress may pass.

“If we get a good farm bill and more funding for fruits and vegetables, we could provide more of them daily to students,” she said. “We could have salad bars in all schools.”

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com


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