The following article was released by the Associated Press and printed in Newsday on Jan. 11, 2003.
WASHINGTON—Contrary to activists' claims, kids aren't getting fat because they eat school lunches, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman contends.
Congress is expected to focus on debating the nutritional value of food served in school cafeterias as lawmakers discuss renewing school lunch and other child nutrition programs overseen by the Agriculture Department.
"We cannot blame obesity on child nutrition programs in this country," Veneman said in an interview with The Associated Press.
USDA is responsible for distributing food from surplus meat, vegetables and fruit to schools to feed school children. It also provides food for breakfast programs at some schools and gives them nutritional guidance.
School lunch is one of the food sources that the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group favoring a vegetarian, lowfat diet, argues should be blamed for young people being overweight.
But Veneman noted that the government is not the primary food provider for children: "The bulk of the eating decisions, or the buying, is done by the parents."
The debate over school lunches came as the surgeon general warned in 2001 that obesity is an epidemic affecting 13 percent of children and 60 percent of adults. The announcement left many people wondering who is responsible, which foods are causing obesity and what can be done to trim waistlines.
Livestock groups rejected any share of the blame
"Where's the statistics, the backup that shows this is causing obesity?" said Kara Flynn, spokeswoman for the National Pork Producers Council. "It's an anti-meat attack, as usual."
The Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group promoting the school lunch program, called the physicians' claims absurd.
School lunches are designed to meet USDA dietary guidelines for meat, grains, dairy, fruits and vegetables, said Lynn Parker, the center's director of child nutrition programs.
"We're not seeing high-calorie sodas as part of lunch. We're not seeing dessert items as a large part of lunch," Parker said.