''Before Labor Day, my 6-year-old daughter went to the opening day of first grade and came back with a school lunch menu. In a model of transparency, the school provides nutritional information on those meals. An opening day lunch option — shrimp 'poppers' with 'cheesy' rice and fruit or apple sauce — provided a whopping 50% of my daughter's recommended allowance of fat for the day,'' Male said. ''Perhaps this helps explain why more than 25 million children are now obese or overweight.''
The Farm Bill, which is reviewed by Congress every five years, is a multi-faceted piece of legislation that provides subsidies to farmers, funds emergency food-aid in the case of disasters, directs the Food Stamp program, and provides incentives to protect the environment. In the past, the Farm Bill has focused more on subsidizing farmers who produce commodity crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans for the global marketplace, and it will continue to do that, now with a focus on producing alternative fuels such as ethanol made from corn. However, proposed versions of the Farm Bill this year will also help smaller farms.
Farmers who produce fruits and vegetables such as apples and Romaine lettuce, which are considered "specialty" crops, have not been eligible for federal funding through farm bills in the recent past. Often specialty crop farmers have smaller operations than farmers who produce commodities. Some specialty farmers only farm part-time. Versions of the 2007 Farm Bill seek to aid these smaller operations.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurologist as well as a correspondent for CNN, encouraged Congress to increase funding for fruits and vegetables through the USDA Farm Bill. "If we actually followed the food pyramid in this country and had five servings of fruits and vegetables — every American, every day — we actually don't have enough fruits and vegetables to provide for us," Gupta said.
"I believe there is a correlation between farm bills that we've been passing for the last 20 years and the incidence of obesity in this country. That's why I keep saying we've got to start promoting alternative crops and fruits and vegetables," said Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
Elementary and secondary school students who live in urban environments don't always have access to fruits and vegetables, as Dr. Gupta reported on CNN in September. Because of inner-city crime, supermarkets are often discouraged from opening in urban centers, which means that young, urban families often resort to convenience stores, which don't typically carry fresh fruits and vegetables, for their groceries. Which begs the question: where have children who live in urban environments been finding fruits and vegetables?
Dr. Gupta interviewed Ladonna Redmond, who maintains an urban farm in a vacant lot in inner-city Chicago.
"Redmond planted the first seeds of what she calls urban farm sites when she couldn't find fresh produce nearby," Gupta reported. "With no place to buy fresh food, Redmond says it's no wonder many in the neighborhood suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity."
Gupta explained that urban farms are part of a growing movement in urban centers throughout the country.
"Taja Sevelle started the non-profit Urban Farming two years ago in Detroit with a goal of eradicating hunger. The group has added gardens in New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis, St. Paul, and Newark," Gupta reported. "[And] Sevelle says urban farming is about a lot more than growing healthy food free for the taking…[It provides] a taste of the country in the city — where the harvest is hope and better health."
Fruits and Vegetables in School
But children who live in farming communities don't necessarily have access to fruits and vegetables at school. In his blog entry, Timothy Male has a good idea for how schools can increase the frequency of home-grown foods on their lunch menus.
"[T]oo often, farmers are shut out from providing healthy local foods to schools in their own communities. Local farmers and children would benefit by expanding the 'farm-to-cafeteria' program. This program helps schools set up purchasing arrangements with small local farms and retrofit school cafeterias to handle actual cooking, as opposed to just reheating pre-packaged meals," said Male. "Such local purchasing arrangements also help keep local farms in business and [provide] other benefits Americans value."
So the big question: will kids even eat the vegetables if they are available to them? Last month, I held a simple dinner at my house for a few friends, and two of the neighbor kids ended up being there. I served a side of assorted frozen vegetables. Neither of the children, both of whom are in grade school, had ever seen snow peas or red peppers, and for them, eating the vegetables was a new experience. The red peppers, being the bright color that they are, were accepted more readily than the snow peas. The kids didn't seem to care that peas are an excellent source of fiber and beta carotene, and they didn't have a clue what I was talking about when I told them that I used to shell peas for my mother in the summertime when I was their age. Perhaps a second exposure to the vegetable will fare more positively. Certainly, a third and fourth are not efforts made in vain.
Members of Congress and the Bush administration should continue their efforts to come to a consensus on measures associated with the 2007 Farm Bill so that the legislation can be enacted — not only for the benefit of our economy, but for the health of our school children.