The School Lunch Program Is Starving


The School Lunch Program

Healthy food makes healthy kids, right? Right, but in order for kids to eat healthy foods, they have to have access to them first. Unfortunately healthy food is hard to come by in today’s school lunch program. School cafeterias are woefully underfunded even with assistance from the Child Nutrition Act. Passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963, the Child Nutrition Act is a federal law that stemmed from the National School Lunch Program which is responsible for feeding over 30 million children each day in over 101,000 public and private schools. However, with inflation and cutbacks in school budgets, it only provides schools about $1 per student. Cafeterias simply cannot afford the fresh healthy food that kids need. Sometimes schools have no choice but to take part in the Department of Agriculture’s commodities program for items like meat and cheese. These items come from farmers’ surplus stock and, although it may be a cost effective method for obtaining pricier food items, it can be disastrous as proven in 2008 when one of the largest suppliers of meat for the National School Lunch Program was caught slaughtering ill cows.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act

The good news is there is a bill up for vote in the House of Representatives that would add $4.5 billion over the next 10 years to help feed America’s school children. It would be the first non-inflationary increase in funding of the school lunch program by the federal government in 30 years. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed unanimously by the Senate in August, 2010 and was scheduled for a House vote by the end of September. It seemed like a no-brainer especially since the Senate passed the bill by a process called unanimous consent where they agreed to pass it without a voice vote. The bipartisan bill has since been delayed in Congress and will not be voted on by the House until after the November 15 elections. This legislation is near and dear to the heart of First Lady, Michelle Obama, who is looking to Congress to pass this bill as a crucial part of her Let’s Move campaign. Her goal is to end childhood obesity within a generation and allocating more money for healthy food in our kids’ schools will go a long way in meeting that goal.

This bill also addresses the lack of proper funding for low-income students. U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, explained that this legislation “invests heavily in new initiatives designed to automatically enroll more eligible low-income children with our National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs and includes a major expansion of afterschool feeding programs.”

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will also increase nutritional standards in schools by allowing the Secretary of Agriculture to establish nutritional standards. The Department of Agriculture continues to modify and improve the nutrition standards for school meals by including more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less sugar and processed food. In fact, this legislation could mark the end of the junk food vending machine era in schools.

The Future of the School Lunch Program

Assuming Congress passes the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in November, school kids nationwide will benefit from healthier food options, as cafeterias will have enough funding to buy higher quality food. The $4.5 billion will be distributed over the next 10 years and it should put us on track to lower childhood obesity rates. However, school administrators need further help in order to make good use of these additional funds. Since they are used to buying mostly bulk frozen food, they will need to establish relationships with distributors who also deal with fresh food. Matching local farmers to schools can help bridge the gap between meat and produce, and the hungry kids who will eat it for lunch. Unfortunately, fresh and healthy food tends to cost more than frozen processed food so it’s important for schools to know how to get this food without breaking their budgets. If schools are encouraged (or forced) to remove their junk food vending machines, they need ideas on what types of machines to replace them with. Vending machines that offer healthy items like baked chips, nuts and dried fruit are available as well as drink machines that dispense milk, juice and water as opposed to sugar and chemicals. A few helpful hints, as well as a list of farmers and distributors willing to participate in the school lunch program, will help school administrators make good use of their new funds.

If Congress does not pass this important legislation, it is crucial that we teach our kids which types of foods are healthy and which foods will make them grow big and strong. Schools can also help in this effort by removing junk food vending machines on their own. Replacing them with healthy vending machines is a giant step forward in limiting the sugar and empty calories kids consume when allowed to make their own snack decisions. School administrators and food service workers do the best they can with their budgets but there are ways to improve kids’ health even without $4.5 billion in help from the government.

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