When I was in high school, the hot-ticket school lunch item was never salad, but greasy cheese pizza, spicy breaded chicken sandwiches, or hot dogs. Students were more likely to buy ice cream than a milk carton or fruit. Needless to say, the most popular items on the menu were definitely not the healthiest items on the menu, and I doubt that things have changed in the span of a few years.
Recently, school lunches have been the target of criticism by parents and politicians looking to improve child nutrition and reduce the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic. Plus, remember that many schools and universities are also working to improve conditions for students with food allergies. A large percentage of school-age children consume nearly half of their calories in the school cafeteria. Many poverty-stricken children rely on school lunches for both sustenance and nutrients. On top of that, over 30 million students are enrolled in the National School Lunch program, which provides reduced-cost or free lunches to students in need. Those two factors, coupled with the growing obesity epidemic, make it even more imperative that something be done about school lunches.
One teacher actually went undercover, eating, documenting, and blogging about school lunches every day for an entire school year. A good percentage of students at her school received free or reduced price lunches. However, students tended to pick at their food, which was mostly either packaged or frozen instead of fresh. The teacher noted that when one student consumed 5 sugar cookies (that he’d bartered for at lunch), he bounced off the walls and was unable to focus for the rest of the day. Food truly impacts both the mental and physical well-being of kids, making it imperative to provide them with the healthiest, freshest food possible.
Although schools do have nutritional standards (for reimbursement purposes), often side items like French fries are counted as vegetables. Plus, many a la carte items like French fries, Supporters of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act argue that kids should have access to healthy meals, even at school.
On December 13th, President Obama signed the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act into law, pumping over 4.5 billion dollars into school lunch programs nationwide, subsidizing more meals for students in poverty-stricken areas and improving the overall nutritional quality of food served in school cafeterias.
As a result of this new legislation, over 100,000 more children will be eligible for school lunch programs. The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act will also add healthier options to school vending machines and increase the meal reimbursement rate by 6 cents per lunch. The bill received bipartisan support in the Senate, although some budget-conscious Republicans are understandably concerned about the 4.5 billion dollar price tag.
These initiatives may not seem like much, but they are a step in the right direction regarding child nutrition. While schools should not bear the entire burden of child nutrition, it is important that schools provide adequate meals for our children. Hopefully the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act will provide needy kids with the healthful food they need to thrive.