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Healthy School Lunch: The Cure for Our Health Care Woes

Posted Jan 07 2010 12:12pm

Healthy School Lunch: The Cure for Our Health Care Woes

The Obama administration has declared the dire state of our health care system one of our country’s most pressing challenges.  The Centers for Disease Control have stated that of the children born in the year 2,000; one out of every three Caucasians and two out of every three African Americans and Hispanics will contract diabetes in their lifetimes; the result of which will be that this generation born in the year 2000 will be the first in our country’s history to die at a younger age than their parents.  The New York Times reported recently that as a Nation we are spending over $260 billion a year on just two health issues; diabetes and obesity. Together these illnesses are the health care crises of our lifetime.

We believe that this impending implosion of the health care system could be alleviated through policies that would make the National School Lunch Program a health program.  If as a country we could equate what we feed our children in school and what we teach them about sustainable food, to their life-long wellness choices and their overall health; then we might be able to avert this impending disaster.  Sometime between the beginning of 2010 and the end of the first quarter, the government will reauthorize the National School Lunch Program. In theory this means that the policies surrounding school food could really make a difference for all children and their families.

There are five major challenges that schools would need to be overcome if we’re going to change children’s (and with them their families) relationship to food.  These are: food, finance, facilities, human resources/education and marketing.

Food: We need policies that are weighted toward fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains and clean protein with a priority on regional procurement and funding for Farm to School programs to help make these policies come “alive.”  Current Government allocated food policy promotes the commercialization of commodity foods into highly processed food stuffs.  Food distributed through government programs should emphasize easier access to whole foods and should be free of added trans-fats, high fructose corn syrup, additives, colorings, hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals that are making our children sick. Our policies have to include both breakfast and lunch and assure that “no child is left behind,” literally – meaning no child is left hungry or undernourished.    One way to help kids eat “real food,” is to give them choices – let’s put salad bars in every school and remove all “ala carte” offerings.  We need only healthy choices for our children and policies that protect them from unhealthy choices.

Finance: We need to make school lunch a priority by allocating at least an additional dollar toward food cost.  The current reimbursement rate for a qualifying student to receive a “free” lunch is approximately $2.70. We need to raise this to $3.70; but with the caveat that the dollar is allocated for whole unprocessed foods as mentioned above.  We realize that this will mean the cost of the lunches in the National School Lunch program will rise from approximately $8.5 billion to $14 billion a year; but we’re going to either pay now to “fix” the system or pay later with the impending health care costs.

There’s another issue here as well; we should be feeding every child every day.  School meals should be universal, which means every child is offered a healthy/delicious breakfast and lunch every day.  Not only will a policy of universal meals alleviate the myriad paperwork that consumes most school food staff, but it will mean that every child will have the same “fuel” from which to learn and play.

Facilities: If we’re going to move from highly processed unhealthy food to menus made up in large part of fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains and clean protein then we need to cook.  For decades school fare has been based upon reheating the likes of chicken nuggets, tater tots, corn dogs and pizza pockets in warming boxes.  A “real food” based system would require cooking as opposed to reheating equipment, which would entail allocating funding to rebuild production kitchens in school districts across the country and retrofitting neighborhood schools to be able to refrigerate ample fresh product, steam fresh vegetables, reheat freshly prepared bulk foods and serve children in a warm and inviting dining room as opposed to the feed and run 15 minute models we see across the country currently.

Human Resources: As a Nation we have in large part stopped cooking in our homes and stopped sitting down to a meal together, and this is no different in our schools.  Over the decades that we’ve been opening boxes as opposed to cooking, we’ve lost much of our food sensibility and culinary skills. We need to teach our school food service workers to handle fresh food again and become champions of healthy eating.  Segueing from chicken nuggets and tater tots to roast chicken and roast potatoes means that we need culinary “boot-camps” to train our food service staff and perhaps a National Culinary Corps, based on AmeriCorps, where culinary students can work off their student loans by cooking in schools.

Marketing:  The average child watches 10,000 commercials a year for foods of little or no nutrient value.  We’ve now raised a generation of children that think chicken nuggets are a food group and that Gatorade is the new “water.”  Our kids are marketed to on a constant basis to eat more and more and more of items like “hot Cheetos,” soda, candy and fast food; the result is that we’ve addicted our children to eating a diet high in fat, sugar and sodium; this needs to change.

Research has shown that what children learn in school is taken home and becomes part of the family.  This leads us to demand a National marketing campaign that makes school food cool food, that elevates fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains to the status of Coke and Pepsi and helps our kids make healthier choices in the same way as we’ve gotten Americans to stop smoking and wear seatbelts.  Additionally, we need funding for hands-on experiential learning in cooking and gardening classes to help educate our kids on these issues.

We believe that this issue is the social justice issue of our time and that we as a Nation have a moral imperative to enact policies that ensure that no child is hungry in school and that the food that they’re fed is delicious and nutritious.  We know that children can’t think or excel when they’re malnourished, we know that both the achievement gap and the life expectancy gap between rich and poor kids has grown significantly in the past few decades.  We know that a disproportionate amount of our country’s health care costs are allocated to our most at risk citizens and we know that those very same children are the ones who are most in need of healthy food in schools.  It truly should be a birth rite in our country that every child, every day in every school is served healthy delicious food.

In an effort to help make this happen we are in the process of developing the Lunch Box Project: Tools to Help All Schools.  We hope that this web-based tool kit will be a resource to support policies that we’re advocating for and that with the Lunch Box’s help, all schools will begin to positively impact the health of an entire generation, by serving them healthier food every day in every school.

Ann Cooper and Beth Collins are partners in the Food Family Farming Foundation and creators of the Lunch Box Project.  www.foodfamilyfarming.org and www.thelunchbox.org .

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