School Lunch Program: A Prime Opportunity to Serve Up ImprovementsAug 01, 2009 03:00AM ● By Aimee Witteman
The United States deserves an F on any national report card on children’s nutritional health. One out of three of our children are overweight. During the past 30 years, the rate of obesity has quadrupled for children ages 6 to 11 and tripled for those ages 12 to 19. As a result, it is now predicted that one in three children will develop diabetes in their lifetime.
Our education system has traditionally held that reading, math, science and English classes form basic building blocks for success. But what lessons are our children learning daily in their school cafeteria?
Why School Lunch is Vital
For many of America’s children, a school lunch is the most important meal of their day, constituting a third to half of their nutritional intake. As childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes skyrocket, Congress is re-examining what shows up in school lunches and exploring ways to get healthier, locally grown foods served up to our nation’s kids.
Admittedly, school lunch programs are just one of several areas that need to be addressed to reverse the current unhealthy trend, but many experts think that it’s one of the most critical.
Studies have shown that the nutritional quality of lunches is lacking in many schools, as they mirror the national trend toward overly processed foods that are low in fiber and high in fat and salt. The Department of Agriculture’s School Nutrition Dietary Assessment, which collected data from 130 school districts across the country, determined that only 6 to 7 percent met all nutrition standards in the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Most of the meals had too much fat or saturated fat or too few calories.
Lobbying for Change
This year, Congress plans to reconsider the Child Nutrition Act—federal legislation that authorizes the school lunch program—and a grassroots effort is underway to improve the state of affairs in school cafeterias. Specifically, good food advocates would like to see $50 million in mandatory funding for Farm to School programs.
The farm to school concept has been broadly defined as a school-based program that connects schools (K-12) with local farms. Goals include serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving child nutrition, supporting local and regional farmers and educating the public about the links between agriculture, health and nutrition. Already, independent farm to school initiatives have begun cropping up around the country. If Congress mandates such programs through the Child Nutrition Act, these programs could flourish in every part of the country. This would help children to start naturally building healthier eating habits and connect them more closely with where their food comes from.
Too many of today’s kids are shocked to see that the milk they drink from cartons came from an animal. One young girl visiting a farm couldn’t believe that lettuce exists outside of a plastic bag.
Parents may question whether their child would choose baked butternut squash over a butter-slathered biscuit. In all seven studies of existing farm to school programs compiled in the report Bearing Fruit by the Center for Food Justice at Occidental College, participating students chose more fresh fruits and vegetables, regardless of the alternative meal option.
It’s not just the kids who benefit. Farm to school programs regularly translate to more money going to schools because they spark increased participation in school lunch programs and schools are paid on the number of lunches served. Local farmers realize more income, which in turn strengthens local economies and creates jobs.
Ecotrust, a nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon, has published an analysis of the impact of investing school food dollars in the local food economy. The study found that for every food dollar spent locally by two school districts in the Portland area, an additional 87 cents was spent in Oregon.
Deborah Kane, vice president of Food and Farms programs for Ecotrust, in Portland, says the research confirms that these programs are a viable investment. “Farm to school programs can make an immediate impact on nearly every sector of our state’s economy,” she says. “We knew the effort would likely benefit the Oregon agricultural community and, of course, Oregon’s children. We were encouraged to learn that the benefits extend far beyond the most obvious.”
Visit www.FarmToSchool.org for program details. Help ensure farm to school is a pivotal provision in the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act by calling members of Congress through the U.S. Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121.
Aimee Witteman is the executive director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Support the mission at www.SustainableAgriculture.net.