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The School Lunch Program Is Starving
The School Lunch Program
Healthy food makes healthy children, right? Right, but in order for children to eat healthy foods, they must first have access to them. Unfortunately, healthy foods are hard to find in today’s school lunches. School cafeterias are woefully underfunded even with help from the Child Nutrition Act. Passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963, the Child Nutrition Act is a federal law that originated from the National School Lunch Program which is responsible for feeding more than 30 million children every day in more than 101,000 public and private schools. However, with inflation and cuts in school budgets, it only provides schools with about $1 per student. Cafeterias simply cannot provide the fresh healthy food that children need. Sometimes schools have no choice but to participate in the Department of Agriculture’s commodity program for items like meat and cheese. These items come from farmers’ surplus stock and, although it can be a cost-effective method of obtaining more expensive food, it can be disastrous as demonstrated in 2008 when one of the largest suppliers of meat for the National School Lunch Program was seized butchering sickly. cows
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act
The good news is that there is a bill up for a 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 for the federal government’s school lunch program 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 a no-brainer especially since the Senate passed the bill through 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 15th 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 children’s schools will go a long way to achieving that goal.
This bill also addresses the lack of adequate funding for low-income students. U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food 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 after-school feeding programs.”
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will also increase nutrition standards in schools by allowing the Secretary of Agriculture to establish nutrition 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 era of vending machines in schools.
The Future of the School Lunch Program
Assuming Congress passes the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in November, school children nationwide will benefit from healthier food options, as cafeterias will have enough funding to purchase higher quality food. The $4.5 billion will be distributed over the next 10 years and should put us on track to reduce childhood obesity rates. However, school administrators need additional help to make good use of these additional funds. Since they are used to buying mostly bulk frozen foods, they will need to establish relationships with distributors who also deal in fresh foods. Pairing local farmers to schools can help bridge the gap between meat and produce, and the hungry children who will eat it for lunch. Unfortunately, fresh and healthy food tends to cost more than frozen processed food, so it’s important that schools know how to get this food without breaking their budgets. If schools are encouraged (or forced) to get rid of their junk food machines, they need ideas about what 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. Some helpful suggestions, 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 important that we teach our children what kinds of foods are healthy and what foods will make them grow up 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 they’re allowed to make their own snacking decisions. School administrators and food service workers are doing the best they can with their budgets, but there are ways to improve children’s health even without $4.5 billion in government aid.
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