School Lunches: A Hunger for Better Nutrition

There has been a spotlight on school lunches recently, and it isn’t just the heat lamp they use for keeping the fries and chicken nuggets warm.  School lunches are such a hot topic there is a prime time ABC reality TV show “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” aiming to solve the crisis. Additionally, recently the government started taking action with the launch of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. Even the military cares. Why? Apparently, the a huge number of new recruits are simply “too fat to fight” and unable to pass the military physical exams.

Various studies proved that childhood obesity causes severe risks of early onset of type 2 diabetes, shorter life spans, and cardiovascular problems.With seventeen percent of American children overweight, advocates for reforming the school lunch program believe time is of the essence. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we’re on the path to seeing diabetes in 30 to 40 percent of today’s children if trends continue.

School lunches have evolved over the years from the 1946 signing of the National School Lunch Act, to the 1981 suggestion that ketchup should be classified as a vegetable, to the introduction of school vending machines and fast food during the 1990s. In a report last year entitled “School meals: Building blocks for healthy children” The Institute of Medicine found the typical school lunch contains twice the recommended amount of sodium. In addition, the authors recommended that schools increase the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains they offer.

survey from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation found a majority of Americans favor reform in the nation’s school lunch program. The nutritional quality of school food was rated as “poor” or “only fair” by 63 percent of parents of school-age children. Of course wanting change, and footing the bill are too different stories. School lunch reform comes at a cost.

As part of the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization legislation, which is re-authorized every five years, Congress could increase by about 6 cents the $2.68 schools can get for each lunch.  There are many advocacy groups that believe this increase is not enough to make the adequate dietary changes and are suggesting the government raise the price a full dollar to $3.60 per lunch.

The Future: What’s On The Menu In The Future

For one thing, schools receiving federal lunch subsidies will soon need to create a plan to teach nutrition. Revisions to the food pyramid mean schools will likely face new guidelines for the lunches they serve. Current efforts are aimed at providing more of the necessary nutrients and fewer items high in sugar, salt and fat.

Many school districts are getting a jump on Congressional action by pursuing their own recipes for a healthy student body. Some are adding healthier items to the menu, and replacing sugary sodas with low fat milk or 100% fruit juice.

Others have started school gardens helping the idea of better nutrition take root in outdoor classrooms. One notable pioneer is the Edible Schoolyard at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. There is also a “Farm to School” initiative – which seeks to link K-12 schools with regional or local farms to increase the nutritional value of meals by using locally produced foods.

Whether at home or school, it is important for parents to encourage healthy choices when it comes to diet, and to consult a physician with special concerns. The “healthy brown bag” approach for now is probably the healthiest option for families who want to make sure their child gets a nutritious lunch.

Related articles & links:

The USDA provides a variety of information and resources at this link

Congress takes aim at unhealthy school lunches

USDA nutrition education and resources

School Nutrition Association

Chef Ann Cooper: The Renegade Lunch Lady

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