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School Lunches: Where’s the Broccoli?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

First Lady Michelle Obama’s noble fight against childhood obesity cannot be won unless members of Congress act boldly this spring and vote to give school lunches the healthy makeover that our kids deserve and desperately need.

Reauthorized every 4-5 years, the Child Nutrition Act supports a range of child nutrition programs, including school lunches and breakfasts, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (better known as WIC), summer meals programs and afterschool snacks and meals.

Unfortunately, the reality in too many schools is that the menu too often consists of such things as tater tots, French fries, hot dogs, pizza, and chicken nuggets -- foods that do not inspire visions of health and wellness. And they certainly do not help the First Lady meet her goals for combating child obesity.

But they are cheap.

And cheap is the name of the game, given that schools typically spend just one dollar per meal on their food purchases (not including labor and overhead costs).

Not only are these unhealthy foods inexpensive, they are provided in abundance as “entitlements” by USDA’s Commodity Food Program, which purchases and distributes millions of dollars worth of pork, beef and other high-fat, high-cholesterol, and highly processed meat and dairy products to school lunch and other nutrition programs.

In 2008, the USDA spent 43% of its Child Nutrition food procurement “entitlement” budget on meat and poultry products, while just 23% went to fruits and vegetables. And of these, most are canned and frozen: Only 22% were fresh—In other words, just 5% of the total commodity entitlement budget went to fresh fruits and vegetables.

If this country is going to improve kids’ health and turn the obesity epidemic around, it must start by serving more healthful meals in schools, where more than 30 million kids develop eating habits that will last a lifetime. That means scaling back high-fat, high- cholesterol foods linked to type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease and increasing consumption of higher fiber and nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

How do we get more fruits and vegetables into school cafeterias?

  1. Congress must provide enough money to buy healthier foods. Schools must be able to afford nutritious meals. As part of his commitment to eliminate childhood hunger by 2015, President Obama proposed a $1 billion per year increase in these programs in his 2011 budget. This is a good start, but a few cents more per meal is not nearly enough to meet the need for healthier, more nutritious food for the 30 million kids who eat school lunches.
  2. Require healthy foods. Congress should tie increased funding for school meals directly to guidelines proposed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). These will ensure that schools provide more servings of fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Otherwise there will be no guarantee that the increased reimbursement will actually pay for healthier food.
  3. Prevent subsidies from indirectly supporting unhealthy foods. A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that federally subsidized meal programs are often underwriting the expenses of unhealthy food items that are available on a la carte menus and in vending machines. Better yet, Congress should keep schools from serving unhealthy foods altogether by increasing federal nutrition standards for all foods served in schools, including from vending machines.
  4. Support a robust farm-to-school program. This month (March), Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) introduced the Farm to School Improvement Act that would provide $10 million a year in mandatory funds under the Child Nutrition Act for grants to help schools buy healthy, fresh products directly from local farmers.

Farm-to-school programs are a huge win-win for kids, farmers, teachers, parents and the community.  Kids get to experience the joys of eating fresh, tasty fruits and vegetables and develop healthy eating habits that will pay health and wellness dividends far into in the future. Farm-to-school programs also give children a greater appreciation of where their food comes from.

Farmers also benefit. By cutting out middlemen and selling directly to schools, they can earn a higher return and keep more money in the local economy. While most farmers earn just 20 cents of every food dollar America spends, a farm-to-school farmer might earn as much as 60 to 70 cents of that procurement dollar.

Invest now, save later.

Amidst the current frenzy for fiscal restraint, we should tell Congress that we don’t want them to rein in spending on child nutrition programs, especially when increased funding is clearly linked to better nutrition and healthier food. Investing NOW in these programs will save billions of dollars down the road in avoided health care costs from diet-related diseases that are seeded early in the lives of our children.

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