One notable achievement of Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity was the introduction of the MyPlate icon, which marks its first anniversary on June 2. “This is a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of the foods that we’re eating,” Mrs. Obama said at the news conference where she, along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, first unveiled the icon a year ago. As busy as we are, “we do have time to take a look at our kids’ plates,” Mrs. Obama said, and as long as it resembles the MyPlate icon, “we’re good. It’s as simple as that.”
It isn’t as simple as that, unfortunately. Beginning this fall, schools across the country will have to make their students’ plates look a lot more like MyPlate. To qualify for federal reimbursement for the meals they serve, schools will have to conform to the new nutrition standards that were signed into law by President Obama as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in December 2010.
Easier said than done for many school districts. As they sort out the logistics, finances and resources required to provide every student with one cup each of fruits and vegetables daily (for high schools), in addition to more whole grains, many have found that they will have to raise the prices charged for meals. Why is this the case?
A big part of the problem is that agricultural policy isn’t in line with health policy, notwithstanding the fact that the USDA is largely responsible for both. This is why it costs more for Americans to consume a vegetable-rich diet than a meat-rich one. “The USDA’s new plate icon couldn’t be more at odds with federal food subsidies,” Kathryn Strong, a staff nutritionist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has noted. “The plate icon advises Americans to limit high-fat products like meat and cheese, but the federal government is subsidizing these very products with billions of tax dollars and giving almost no support to fruits and vegetables. Congress has to reform the Farm Bill to support healthy diets.”
The Farm Bill comes up for renewal this year. On April 26, the Senate Agricultural Committee voted to pass the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012. On her blog, NYU nutrition, food studies, and public health professor Marion Nestle summarizes some of the provisions in the proposed bill that help to more closely align agricultural policy with health policy:
- $150 million annually for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program
- $50 million per year for the Defense Department Fresh Program, which provides fresh fruits and vegetables to schools and service institutions
- $70 million annually for the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (“Specialty crops,” by government definition, include fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts.)
- $25 million annually for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, and up to $50 million by 2017
- $200 million annually for The Market Access Program and $9 million for the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops Program
- $100 million over 5 years for Hunger-Free Community Incentive Grants, to increase purchases of fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets and other healthy food retailers by SNAP (food stamp) customers
- $100 million over 5 years for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program
- $125 million for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, to increase access to healthy foods in low-income communities and communities of color
The farm bill is a very complex piece of legislature, so I can’t speak to the nitty-gritty details of it all. Many experts believe, however, that this proposal will be as good as it gets, considering today’s politics. If it or something like it does pass, many more of Americans’ plates may in fact begin to resemble the MyPlate icon, which could help to begin to make a dent in our public health crisis.