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The School Lunch Program Is Starving

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The school feeding program

Healthy food makes healthy kids, right? True, but in order for kids to eat healthy foods, they must first have access to them. Unfortunately, healthy food is hard to come by in today’s school lunch program. School canteens are woefully underfunded, even with the help of the Child Nutrition Act. The Child Nutrition Act, passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963, is a federal law that originated with the National School Lunch Program, which is responsible for the daily feeding of over 30 million children in over 101,000 public and private schools. However, in the face of inflation and cuts in school budgets, it only provides schools with about $1 per student. Canteens just can’t afford the fresh, healthy food kids need. Sometimes schools have no choice but to participate in the Department of Agriculture’s commodity program for items like meats and cheeses. These items come from farmers’ surplus stocks, and while this can be an inexpensive method of sourcing more expensive groceries, it can be disastrous, as evidenced in 2008 when one of the largest suppliers of meat to the National School Lunch Program was caught slaughtering cows.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Children Act

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The good news is that the House of Representatives is about to vote on a bill that would add $4.5 billion over the next 10 years to feed America’s schoolchildren. It would be the first non-inflationary increase in federal funding for the school meals program in 30 years. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Children Act passed the Senate unanimously in August 2010 and was due for a vote in the House of Representatives by the end of 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 vote. The bipartisan bill has since been delayed in Congress and will not be put to a vote by the House of Representatives until after the Nov. 15 election. This legislation is close to the heart of First Lady Michelle Obama, who expects 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 our children’s schools for healthy food will go a long way toward achieving that goal.

This bill also addresses the lack of adequate funding for low-income students. US Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., chair of the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food and Forestry, stated that this legislation “invests heavily in new initiatives aimed at getting more eligible, low-income children automatically into our National School Lunch and School enrollment programs and includes a significant expansion of after-school feeding programs.”

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will also raise nutritional standards in schools by allowing the Secretary of Agriculture to set nutritional standards. The Department of Agriculture continues to change and improve nutritional standards for school meals, 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, Hunger-Free Children Act in November, schoolchildren across the country will benefit from healthier eating options because cafeterias have the resources to purchase higher-quality food. The $4.5 billion will be spread over the next 10 years and should set us on the path to reducing childhood obesity rates. However, school administrators need further help to put these additional funds to good use. As they are used to buying mostly frozen food in bulk, they need to build relationships with vendors who also deal in fresh food. Bringing local farmers together with schools can help bridge the gap between meat and produce and the hungry children who eat it for lunch. Unfortunately, fresh and healthy foods tend to cost more than frozen processed foods. Therefore, it is important that schools know how to obtain these foods without breaking the bank. When schools are encouraged (or forced) to remove their junk food machines, they need ideas on what types of machines can replace them. Vending machines offering healthy items like baked chips, nuts, and dried fruit are present, as are vending machines dispensing milk, juice, and water instead of sugar and chemicals. A few helpful tips and a list of farmers and traders willing to participate in the school feeding program will help school administrators put their new funds to good use.

If Congress doesn’t pass this important piece of legislation, it’s critical that we educate our children about the types of foods that are healthy and the foods that make them grow big and strong. Schools can also help in this effort by removing junk food machines themselves. 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 snacking choices. School administrators and hospitality workers spend their budgets as best they can, but there are ways to improve children’s health without $4.5 billion in government aid.

Thanks to Austin Brawner

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