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The School Lunch Program Is Starving
The school lunch program
Healthy food makes healthy kids, right? True, but in order for children to eat healthy food, they must first have access to it. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find healthy food in today’s school lunch program. School cafeterias are underfunded even with the help of the Child Nutrition Act. Passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963, the Child Nutrition Act is a federal law that grew out of the National School Lunch Program that is responsible for feeding more than 30 million children each day in more than 101,000 public schools and private However, with inflation and cuts in school budgets, it only gives schools about $1 per student. Cafeterias simply cannot afford 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’ surpluses, and while 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 to the National School Lunch Program was caught in killing cows
Healthy and Hunger-Free Children 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 school lunch program funding by the federal government in 30 years. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed the Senate unanimously in August 2010 and was scheduled for a House vote in late September. It seemed like 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 won’t be voted on by the House until after the Nov. 15 election. This legislation is very 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. Their goal is to end childhood obesity within a generation, and putting more money into healthy food in our children’s schools will go a long way toward achieving that goal.
This bill also addresses the lack of adequate funding for low-income students. U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, explained that this legislation “invests heavily in new initiatives designed to automatically enroll more eligible low-income children to our national 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 set nutrition standards. The Department of Agriculture continues to modify and improve nutritional standards for school meals by including more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less sugar and processed foods. In fact, this legislation could mark the end of the era of junk food vending machines in schools.
The future of the school lunch program
Assuming Congress passes the Healthy, Healthy Hungry Kids Act in November, school children across the country will benefit from healthier food options as cafeterias will have enough funding to purchase better 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 more help to put these additional funds to good use. Because they are used to buying mostly frozen foods in bulk, they will need to build relationships with distributors who also deal in fresh foods. Partnering local farmers with schools can help bridge the gap between meat and produce, and the hungry kids who will eat it for lunch. Unfortunately, fresh, healthy foods often cost more than frozen processed foods, so it’s important for schools to know how to get them without breaking their budgets. If schools are encouraged (or forced) to remove their junk food vending machines, they need ideas about what types of machines to replace them with. There are vending machines that offer healthy items like baked potato chips, nuts and dried fruit, as well as drink machines that dispense milk, juice and water instead of sugar and chemicals. Some helpful tips, as well as a list of farmers and distributors willing to participate in the school lunch program, will help school administrators put their new funds to good use.
If Congress does not pass this important legislation, it is crucial that we teach our children what kinds of foods are healthy and what foods will make them grow big and strong. Schools can also help in this effort by eliminating junk food vending machines on their own. Replacing them with healthy vending machines is a big step forward in limiting the sugar and empty calories kids consume when they’re 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 children’s health even without $4.5 billion in government aid.
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