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01/27/2012

Should school cafeterias offer vegan alternatives?

I received the letter below from a group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. That's kind of a deceptive title. Actually, it's a PETA-like organization, only for people in the health care field, that promotes a vegan diet and protests animal slaughter and testing.

It was written in response to the new, healthier school lunch guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week. 

Generally, I think these groups carry things way too far when it comes to promoting a diet free of meat, dairy and egg products. But I think they have at least the germ of a point here. I realize that the USDA wants to help maintain strong meat, dairy and poultry industries here. They're a huge part of our economy and that's as it should be. But do we really need to feed our kids meals that include milk every day? Do we really need to include a meat product every day? Is it necessary to use cheese as the only distraction to get kids to eat their vegetables?

If you haven't done so already, check out the USDA's new Supertracker website. It's one of the better free sites I've seen for tracking your food intake, exercise and weight, and I've been using it religiously for a couple of weeks. In addition to the tracking capability, it also includes recommended thresholds for certain foods, to maintain health and lose weight — or not gain any.

For example, the program recommends that a guy my age not take in more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day — which so far I'm finding pretty difficult. I hadn't a clue how salt-laden some canned and prepared foods contain.

It also includes a very small allowance for "empty calories" — things like pop, beer or wine, ice cream and candy.

As you might expect, it recommends a lot of fruit (two cups) and vegetables (three cups). But the baffling thing to me is that it also recommends a relatively high amount of protein — (for most of us that means meat and eggs (six ounces), and dairy products (three cups).

Do we really need that much meat and milk or cheese every day?

My guess is that the USDA can get by recommending a tiny amount of salt because the salt industry doesn't have a lot of lobbyists in Washington looking out for its industry. But the dairy industry? The pork and beef industry? Different story.

I'm not suggesting that the USDA, or medical doctors, or any other group recommend a vegan or vegetarian diet. I come from a long line of dairy farmers and beef ranchers and I absolutely love meat and cheese. But wouldn't it be OK to tell Americans that it's all right to eat a meatless main meal once or twice a week. Or that there are alternatives to steak, burgers and bacon to supply our protein needs. Or that you shouldn't have to disguise green beans or broccoli with cheese to get you kids to eat it?

Here's the letter:

School lunches may soon look different—but not different enough to stem the tide of childhood obesity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just issued new guidelines for school lunches, but as a dietitian, I think it’s unfortunate that burgers, pizza, and other unhealthy foods will likely still be front and center.

The new guidelines do not require schools to offer meatless entrées or nondairy beverage options to all students. Meat, milk, and cheese are packed with calories and saturated fat, and they play a huge role in the obesity epidemic. The new guidelines offer low-fat and nonfat milk, but these products are still high in sugar and cholesterol. And a cup of 1 percent, unflavored low-fat milk has about the same amount of calories as a cup of sugary soda.  

It is estimated that students get half to one-third of their calories at school. We need to make sure schools provide foods that set our future generations up for lifelong good eating habits—and lifelong good health.

Sincerely,

Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.  
Director of Nutrition Education
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine 
5100 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Suite 400 
Washington, D.C. 20016  

Comments

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I have a real problem with equating a cup of milk with an equivalent amount of soda. Calcium deficiency is a real problem for growing children especially young girls who need to be storing up bone mass for the future if they don't want to end up as stooped old women.

Soda has no nutritional benefit. Milk does. Not only calcium, it also has Vitamin D which is sadly lacking in almost all Minnesotans, especially in the winter time. Vitamin D studies have shown that its absence can cause or exacerbate other ailments and diseases.

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