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Todd Staples, the Texas state agriculture commissioner, recently described a veggie-based dietary awareness campaign in the schools as an activist movement that degrades children’s nutrition to push an agenda.
Meatless Monday is pretty self-explanatory; it’s an awareness campaign that encourages people to abstain once weekly from eating meat. The program was born in 2003 as a health initiative out of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with stated goals of improving people’s health and lowering fuel and water costs of food production by encouraging lower meat consumption.
It has since spread to participants that include hundreds of schools, universities and restaurants in 24 countries. But the arrival of the Baltimore-based program at three elementary schools in the Dripping Springs Independent School District made Staples "very concerned," he said in a Sept. 8, 2014, commentary in the Austin American-Statesman.
For Staples, excluding meat is not just a matter of taste – it’s a blow to daily nutrition, especially if students are not well nourished at home. "It is important to remember that for many underprivileged children the meals they eat at school often represent their best meals of the day. To deprive them of a meat-based protein during school lunch is most likely depriving them of their only source of protein for the day," Staples wrote.
Was Staples right about kids getting shorted? Let’s look at the meals that drew his ire, then explore if affected children are not getting needed proteins.
Warning: Flames ahead.
Dining options on a Meatless Monday
Generally in Dripping Springs, lunching students may select up to one meat/meat alternate, three fruit or vegetable dishes and one grain or milk dish. If a child forgoes a meat/meat alternate, he or she is allowed four fruit or vegetable dishes. A student must take a minimum of three dishes with at least one serving of fruit or vegetable. On any day, of course, there's a chance a child won't choose to eat any protein dishes.
The lunch menu at Dripping Springs Elementary, which participates in Meatless Mondays, runs on a three-week cycle.
On the first Monday, when meat is not an option, the school offers vegetarian chili with cornbread, grilled cheese sandwiches, assorted vegetarian soups, cheese nachos, a baked potato with fixings, "healthy" refried beans, crunchy vegetable dippers and chilled pears or fresh fruit.
On the second Monday of the school’s cycle, the menu includes cheese ravioli, vegetarian chili, cornbread, mozzarella sticks with marinara, a baked potato with fixings, spinach salad, green beans, apple sauce and fresh fruit.
On the third Monday, the cafeteria offers black bean burritos, bean and cheese burritos, vegetarian chili, corn bread, cheese nachos, a baked potato with fixings, "healthy" refried beans, "carrot babies" with ranch, chilled sliced peaches and fresh fruit.
This is a Meatless Monday menu from Dripping Springs Elementary, as presented online by the school.
Staples’ backup information
By email, Staples spokesman Bryan Black pointed out the website of First Lady Michelle Obama’s school nutrition program, Let’s Move, hosted by the federal government and affiliated with the White House, which says: "Many children consume at least half of their meals at school, and for many children, food served at school may be the only food they regularly eat." We heard from Black before Staples announced he plans to resign to become president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association.
Black said the website "is dedicated to healthy lifestyles for children and confirms the message from Commissioner Staples" that many students might not have access to protein at home.
John Crowley, head of the Dripping Springs Independent School District’s nutrition program, said 14.03 percent of students in the Dripping Springs Independent School District receive free or reduced-price school meals. Children from families with incomes at 185 percent of the poverty line and less qualify for reduced-price school meals under federal guidelines.
Another federal publication, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, accessed at health.gov, describes the vitality of protein to a balanced diet. It also lists protein-rich foods that go beyond meat. Those include milk and milk products such as cheese, as well as beans, peas, nuts, seeds and soy products.
We sent an inquiry on the quality and quantity of proteins in non-meat foods to the Nutrition and Food Science Department at Texas A&M University, and our questions were referred to Dr. Peter Murano, who worked for several years as deputy administrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.
"It is certainly the case that meat foods, as well as dairy foods and eggs, are widely known to be the best sources of high quality, complete protein – which means that all of the essential amino acids that a child needs will be present, and in a highly digestible/utilizable form," he said in an email.
"It is however recognized that by pairing incomplete protein plant-based foods, such as beans and rice, that each complements the other, and the combination is also a good source of protein," he said.
Murano said some common pairings of incomplete proteins to make complete proteins include beans and rice, peanut butter and bread (wheat) and corn and lima beans.
A complete protein includes all nine essential amino acids that the body uses to build flesh as well as hormones and enzymes. With incomplete protein sources, like unpaired beans, the body will not be able to make new material like hormones and flesh. However, Murano said that even on a vegetarian diet, one could have a healthy protein diet by consuming a complete protein or accurately paired incomplete proteins "several times a week."
An online search led us via HealthProfs.com, a directory of health professionals, to Stephanie Turkel, a registered dietitian nutritionist with a private practice in Plano. She said by phone that substituting meat with even an incomplete protein, like nuts or beans, once a week is "just fine." Turkel said: "You don’t have to get everything you need in one day. It’s over the course of a week that you should see if you’ve gotten everything you need."
Federal standards for nutritious meals
Crowley said the Dripping Springs cafeterias are required to follow the federal Department of Agriculture’s Guidelines for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program, which require meals be "nutritionally balanced," according to the agency’s Food and Nutrition Service website.
Daily, schools must offer at least one meat or "meat alternate" option, the guidelines say. According to the Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, "offering a meat/meat alternate daily as part of the school lunch supplies protein, B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc and magnesium to the diet of children, and also teaches them to recognize the components of a balanced meal. Menu planners are encouraged to offer a variety of protein foods (e.g., lean or extra lean meats, seafood, and poultry; beans and peas; fat-free and low-fat milk products; and unsalted nuts and seeds) to meet the meat/meat alternate requirement."
The guidelines also say: "USDA wishes to clarify that schools have the option to offer mature beans and dry peas (e.g., kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans/ chickpeas, black-eyed peas, split peas and lentils) as meat alternates. Mature beans and peas dry longer on the plant, fix more nitrogen, and have a higher protein content, which makes them nutritionally comparable to protein foods."
As we looked into Staples’ claim, the online Culturemap Dallas reported the Texas Department of Agriculture had removed guidelines for healthy children’s meals from an agency website after Staples objected to the meatless lunches. The guidelines, published by Square Meals, the agency’s school nutrition education and outreach program, advise that children "substitute beans for meat once a week."
Culturemap Dallas quoted Black saying the document was taken offline because it "offered advice that was neither complete nor scientifically based and does not reflect the position of the agency."
Staples wrote: "To deprive" underprivileged children "of a meat-based protein during school lunch is most likely depriving them of their only source of protein for the day."
He offered no full-fledged backup for this claim while the Austin-area school he singled out as demonstrating this shortcoming follows a menu written to satisfy federal requirements schools serve a protein meeting dietary needs, whether it’s meat or not, every day.
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Op-ed, "Keep ‘Meatless Mondays’ campaign out of Texas school cafeterias," Todd Staples, Austin American-Statesman, Sept. 8, 2014
News story, "Meat-free Monday lunches in Dripping Springs raise Staples’ hackles," American-Statesman, posted online Sept. 8, 2014
Emails, Bryan Black, director of communications, Texas Department of Agriculture, Sept. 11, 2014
Emails, John Crowley, child nutrition director, Dripping Springs school district, Sept. 11, 2014
Telephone interview, John Crowley, child nutrition director, Dripping Springs school district, Dripping Springs, Sept. 15, 2014
Telephone interview, Stephanie Turkel, registered dietary nutritionist, Turkel Nutrition, Plano, Sept. 12, 2014
Emails, Cherry Dumaual, spokesperson, Meatless Mondays, Sept . 11, 2014
Document, Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Archives and Records Administration, (accessed Sept. 11, 2014)
Document, Dripping Springs Elementary School Menu 2014-2015, Dripping Springs school district, (received Sept. 11, 2014)
Document, The Dish on Serving Up Healthy Meals to Kids, Square Meals, The Texas Department of Agriculture, accessed via the St. Bernard of Clairvaux Catholic School
Emails, Peter Murano, nutritionist food scientist, Texas A&M University Nutrition and Food Science Department, Sept. 16, 2014
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