Memo from MFJ

Flunking Carrots 101

September 2009

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Parents are sending their kids back to school, and some of them are no doubt worrying about what their youngsters will be eating there.

According to the USDA, which is a junk food in schools? (Hint. It doesn't go great with ketchup.)

Here's why: The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets no limits on the sugar, saturated fat, or salt in the snacks in vending machines and school stores or in the a la carte items sold in school cafeterias. The USDA's only rule: a food has to have a minimal level of vitamins or minerals.

So schools can sell chocolate-coated ice cream bars, Snickers bars, and Hi-C Blast but not Altoids breath mints or bottled seltzer water.

Students may learn about healthy eating in the classroom, but in the cafeteria they encounter a buffet of French fries, chips, chocolate chip cookies, and other fatty, salty, sugary junk.

A growing number of concerned parents, state legislators, and school officials are demanding better. Many school systems have tossed out soft drinks and most junk foods.

And the soft-drink industry—under the threat of a lawsuit by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (publisher of Nutrition Action)—has agreed to get its worst beverages (though not sports drinks) out of schools by the beginning of this school year.

What's more, Congress is now considering landmark legislation to limit the fat, salt, and sugar in foods offered alongside school meals. The bills (S. 934 and H. 1324) are being championed by Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Democratic Representative Lynn Woolsey of California, along with a coalition led by CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan. (To support the effort, visit

The USDA does limit total fat and saturated fat in school breakfasts and lunches, but is still in the process of setting limits for other nutrients highlighted in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as the law requires. The USDA should require more whole grains, limit sodium and added sugar, and ban trans fat.

Getting kids to enjoy tasty, healthy foods can be challenging. Some creative food service directors and schools are using local produce, doing taste tests and having kids vote for healthier entrées, and teaching students how to cook healthful foods.

Take food service director Tony Geraci. He's buying cheaper and fresher produce from local farmers and having kids grow organic fruits and vegetables on the Baltimore school system's 33-acre Great Kids Farm. I hope that's just a small taste of what we'll be seeing around the country in the coming school year.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Center for Science in the Public Interest

CSPI thanks the Freed Foundation for supporting work—including this month's cover story on prostate cancer—to advance public understanding of the link between diet and cancer and promote policies that encourage consumption of less meat and alcohol, more fruits and vegetables, and fewer additives that may cause cancer.

The contents of NAH are not intended to provide medical advice, which should be obtained from a qualified health professional. The use of information from Nutrition Action Healthletter for commercial purposes is prohibited without written permission from CSPI.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is the nonprofit health-advocacy group that publishes Nutrition Action Healthletter. CSPI mounts educational programs and presses for changes in government and corporate policies.

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