Feeding Our Kids Better School Lunch


In 1946, when President Truman signed the School Lunch Act, he said, “In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children, or more prosperous than its farmers.” If that was a statement of purpose rather than merely a rhetorical flourish, then the School Lunch Act has failed.

Today in America we have steadily rising rates of childhood obesity, and if you were born after 2000, you have a startling one-in-three chance of developing early-onset diabetes. Meanwhile America now has more prisoners than farmers, and among those few remaining farmers the average age is 57.1 and rising. The equation becomes quite simple to understand: No farmers equals no food.

In an effort to raise awareness and rally support behind changes to the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, Slow Food USA has created the Time for Lunch campaign. This campaign is calling on Congress to provide the resources schools need to serve real food for lunch. Those involved in making the day-to-day dietary decisions for our children do not have the adequate resources to provide healthy, nutritious, and yes, tasty food for our kids. This must change. It’s time to invest in children’s health, protect against food that puts children at risk and teach children healthy habits that will last through life.

All the talk in Washington right now is on health care reform, and that’s a good thing. But no matter what solutions they craft to meet America’s health care needs, their system will be bankrupted by skyrocketing rates of preventable illnesses that began when we started using our schools as a dumping ground for agribusiness surplus and as a proving ground for corporate marketing to our children. With the red herring of providing the “freedom to choose,” the conglomerates who peddle edible food-like substances have weaseled their way into what is, for many children, the most important (indeed sometimes only) meal of the day: lunch. They tell us the kids should be allowed to choose between a salad and a Twinkie, milk and Coke. And schools fall for this because their resources are constantly being cut, and the junk food pushers offer a cheap and easy way out.

Under the National School Lunch Program, the USDA reimburses schools for every meal served: $2.57 for a free lunch, $2.17 for a reduced-price lunch and 24 cents for a paid lunch. Since these reimbursements must also pay for labor, equipment and overhead costs, schools are left with only $1.00 to spend on food. How can schools be expected to feed our children and protect their health with only a dollar a day? It’s time to build a strong foundation for our children’s health by raising the reimbursement rate to $3.57.

That amounts to an increase of $5.4 billion over an academic year. Serious money to be sure, but when obesity-related healthcare costs are $147 billion annually, it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with an extra buck a day for our children.

Senator Harkin and Congresswoman Woolsey are to be commended for their efforts in this area. Their Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009 will put a stop to food companies profiting from selling obesity to our kids. We need more though. We must fund grants for Farm to School programs and school gardens, simultaneously improving local economies, supporting local farms, and raising our children’s awareness of where food comes from and why it’s important.

We can even create jobs by training unemployed and underemployed Americans to be the teachers, farmers, cooks and administrators that our school cafeterias need. President Obama has called for an end to childhood hunger by 2015; let’s answer that call by putting Americans to work building and working in school kitchens nationwide.

This Labor Day you can help by joining or organizing an Eat-In, a National Day of Action being coordinated in communities all over the US. Details are at www.SlowFoodUSA.org/timeforlunch.

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  1. Thursday, July 30th, 2009
    Thank you for this concise, powerful, and impassioned summary and, more importantly, your call to action.
  2. Thursday, July 30th, 2009
    One way that school lunch kitchens could reduce their overhead costs would be for the federal government to introduce a "Cook for America" program, where fresh-out-of-cooking-school young people work in public school kitchens for cheap and get their student loans reimbursed after a while, because often cooking schools are ridiculously expensive and in the restaurant world, it's very hard to pay them back. We'd get well-trained people in our school kitchens that way, too.

    Also, having a trained head cook who actually knows how to cook real food for large groups, instead of just reheating things, in charge of all the less-experienced helpers would make things more organized. Maybe we can pull all the old '40s and '50s lunch ladies out of retirement? If there are any left, that is.

    Jamie Oliver did a show a while back about reinventing school lunches in northern England, where he discovered that for many of the children, school lunch was their only "real" or hot meal of the day. And it was basically fried "nuggets" of meat and french fries (aka "chips"). A portion of one show was devoted to discussing the colonic health of these kids, which was incredibly poor and incredibly gross and sad to hear about. American lunch rooms are just the same.

    And what kid in his or her right mind is going to choose salad over a cheeseburger, pizza, and chicken nuggets? Not any that I've ever met. My mom didn't cater to my sister and I growing up. If we didn't like what she served, too bad. So we learned to eat pretty healthily, after we stopped picking all the veggies out of whatever she made. :D School kids would, too.
  3. Thursday, July 30th, 2009
    Great article. I just watched Food Inc and wondered the same thing...maybe the start of healthcare reform should be simplifying how we produce our food. Get back to nature...

    I also think that restaurants, particularlly fast food joints, should not package food combinations that exceed the daily recommended fat and calories... Why is over processed food cheaper than wholesome produce? Processed food is transported more, handled by more people, requires packaging....Baffling...

    We should rely more heavily on our local farmers' markets for our health, our environment and our kids will benefit on both counts. Thanks for the food for thought.
  4. Kurt Michael Friese
    Thursday, July 30th, 2009
    The "Cook for America" idea is a great one and should be pursued, thanks for that.

    Anyone wanting more background, besides going to the SFUSA site mentioned above, should check out Tom Philpott's Jan. '09 article @ http://www.grist.org/article/eat-the-stimulus/
  5. Jean Adler
    Thursday, July 30th, 2009
    Kurt, Great essay. My son ate school lunch as a Kindergartener, in part because he wanted to "fit in." He would come home from school and immediately ask for something to eat. He didn't like anything they were serving and ate very little of his lunch. The past four years we have packed him a lunch. He isn't starving when he comes home from school and I know that what he is eating isn't junk. I know kids whose diets consist of sugary cereals, chicken nuggets, and french fries. Perhaps they'll have some milk with that, but usually the drink of choice is a soda. But those parents who allow their kids to dictate what they will or will not eat need to take some of the blame for their kids' lousy eating habits.
    Perhaps more parents need to adopt the food rule from a generation or two ago when it came to eating healthy foods, "You have two choices, take it or leave it."
  6. Thursday, July 30th, 2009
    Let's build a connection between kids and their food through Farm to School programs. Farm to School programs can be started parents, teachers, and community members. Local farms offer a direct connection for kids to be aware of where their food is coming from though field trips. School gardens offer endless possililities for hands on learning the food that we eat. Kids will choose the fresh tossed salad made with vegetables from their school garden. Kids will eat an apple that is grown at the orchard that their class visited on a field trip. When given a choice, kids that feel connected to their local food sources will choose fresh food over prepackaged food. Once the excitement for the fresh foods is in the kids, then there's no stopping it! Elementary school kids will ask for fresh vegetables, fresh baked breads, and whole fruit when they feel connected to their food.
    ...speaking from experience, I enjoying working with school lunch programs and farm to school programs in New England.