Cheeseburgers on Tuesday. Pizza on Wednesday. Fried chicken sandwiches on Thursday. MSJ students are more than familiar with the cycle of heavy entrees the FUSD lunch program offers up week after week, always accompanied by cookies, ice cream, and soft drinks.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 16 percent of teen daily caloric intake nationwide is from added sugars, and refined sugar is found around every corner. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), teenagers are a demographic especially vulnerable to sugar addiction, which a 2018 British Journal of Sports Medicine study claimed can induce drug-like effects. While most consequences like obesity and high blood pressure seem far off, sugar dependency can negatively impact a student’s daily life for years.
When Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 was relaxed by the Trump Administration, schools reintroduced products like flavored low fat (rather than nonfat) milks — a carton of the Crystal Creamery Low Fat Chocolate Milk distributed at MSJ has 26 grams of added sugar, already exceeding the average daily added sugar intake of an adult woman, which is 25 grams according to the American Heart Association. Because of the change, sugary foods are again more readily available to students, making them more susceptible to sugar dependency from a young age.
“… a carton of the Crystal Creamery Low Fat Chocolate Milk distributed at MSJ has 26 grams of added sugar, already exceeding the average daily added sugar intake of an adult woman, which is 25 grams according to the American Heart Association.”
Compared to natural sugars (as found in fruit) added refined sugar is digested quickly — without the fiber or nutrients that foods like fruit would provide to slow the process. This leads to spikes in energy, blood sugar and insulin.
In the face of high stress levels at MSJ, it’s easy for students to give in to their sugar cravings. After all, sugar rushes that provide the briefest boost of energy and happiness seem enticing, perfect for cram sessions. For unwitting sugarholics, it’s easier than fighting withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, fatigue, and dizziness. The consequences of sugar addiction aren’t glamorous and can include insulin resistance that can lead to type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. Since 2010, the childhood obesity rate has grown to an alarming 18.5 percent of children in the U.S., according to the CDC, providing a jarring wake up call to reality: student’s health isn’t going to fix itself.
In July 2012, the USDA updated federal nutrition standards for school meals, snacks, and beverages, as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. According to the USDA, in regards to sugar, the only requirement school snacks and beverages must meet is that less than 35 percent of their weight be from sugar. For context, an Original Glazed Donut from Krispy Kreme is about 20.41 percent sugar by weight and boba milk tea is about 8.81 percent sugar by weight. The fact that sugar-loaded donuts and milk teas meet our nation’s sugar requirements for schools attests to USDA’s lack of adequate oversight.
“Since 2010, the childhood obesity rate has grown to an alarming 18.5 percent of children in the U.S., according to the CDC, providing a jarring wake up call to reality: student’s health isn’t going to fix itself.”
What’s even more alarming is that in the USDA Code of Regulations Part 210, there are no stated restrictions on the sugar content of meals sold as part of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). There are requisites to limit sodium and fat but schools hold the liberty to opt for cheaper meal options while still abiding to national nutrition standards. In addition, food items that meet the nutrition standards are not limited in the quantity they are sold to students. Even if the item complies with the USDA’s excessively tolerant and ineffective regulations, nothing prohibits students from purchasing three or four snacks that eventually amount to a dangerous excess of sugar intake.
Aside from insufficient federal food restrictions, the government’s endorsement of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) also contributes to our nation’s sugar epidemic and obesity crisis. As opposed to table sugar made from sugarcane and sugar beets, HFCS is derived from corn — the most heavily subsidized crop by the U.S. government. The availability of this much more affordable form of sugar has resulted in manufacturers loading their products with HFCS. According to The New York Times, companies sell highly processed and sugar-concentrated foods to schools across the nation at low prices and in efforts to offer affordable meals, schools distribute them to students.
According to the FUSD Wellness Policy, all FUSD food guidelines are compliant with the USDA’s regulations. Schools and school districts are not the culprit here. Rather, it’s the lack of adequate restrictions and specifications regarding sugar in our federal nutrition standards. Addressing our nation’s sugar epidemic entails a combined effort from the government, food manufacturers, and students themselves. The USDA must enforce stricter restrictions on sugar in school foods, such as limiting the amount of processed sugars in not only snacks and beverages, but also meals. The government should also place heavier subsidies on fresh fruits so companies opt to sell products with pure forms of natural sugar rather than highly processed HFCS. This would also aid small farmers in need of federal financial support who grow fruits, nuts, and vegetables. According to The Washington Post, a majority of government subsidies are for field crops such as corn, wheat, and soy whereas fruits and vegetables receive minimal, if any, subsidies. Ironically, the USDA 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommends that people fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables: a statement entirely incongruous with how subsidies are actually allocated.
“The USDA must enforce stricter restrictions on sugar in school foods, such as limiting the amount of processed sugars in not only snacks and beverages, but also meals. The government should also place heavier subsidies on fresh fruits so companies opt to sell products with pure forms of natural sugar rather than highly processed HFCS.”
Responsibility lies in students as well, who should aim to lead a balanced lifestyle with nutritious food choices and regular exercise. So the next time you’re in line at the student store, opt for an apple instead of a Pop-Tart.
Graphic by Graphics Editor Evangeline Chang