Don’t make us tighten our belts on child nutrition programs while the girth of the nation grows. The government spends $1 million per soldier in Afghanistan, yet barely spends $1 on the food in a school lunch.
When President Obama addresses the nation in his State of the Union, he will outline his priorities for 2010: jobs, the deficit, and health care reform. The President will then call for a three-year freeze on domestic programs. Will a program created to “promote the health and well-being of the nation’s children” survive the freeze?
Probably not, unless we, the voting public, find our voice and let our elected officials know that child nutrition in general — and the National School Lunch Program in particular — is a priority.
Now is absolutely NOT the time to cut support for the next generation’s health. The most vulnerable of U.S. citizens, our children, face the strange paradox of being both overfed and malnourished. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 1 in 4 children suffered hunger in the U.S. in 2008. At the same time, the CDC reports that 1 in 3 children will develop Type II Diabetes in their lifetime, make that 1 in 2 if the child is black or Hispanic. Resident Mom-in-Chief Michelle Obama recently highlighted these sickening statistics in her speech to the Council of Mayors last week as she launched her campaign against obesity.
The Child Nutrition Act is being debated in Congress right now, which means we have a rare opportunity to actually improve how food for our youngest citizens is funded, sourced, defined, and prioritized. This window for change only arises once every five years.
Off to a good start in 2009, the Obama Administration included an additional $1 billion for child nutrition programs. Put into lunch money terms, that’s pocket change, but it’s a welcome jingle in the ridiculously low budgets faced by school cafeterias.
Food service directors face a monumental daily battle to create school lunch menus, given an average of just $1 to spend on the food portion of lunch (once labor and other overhead costs are deducted) while being expected to incorporate minimum nutritional standards and operate in the black. The federal government provides the lunch money, on average, $2.68 for the kids that qualify for a free lunch, $2.28 for a reduced price lunch, and $0.25 cents for all. And those amounts include the overhead and facility costs associated with serving a meal such as the fluorescent lights in the cafeteria.
An oft-quoted statistic for the price tag of one soldier in Afghanistan is $1 million, for a total of $65 billion. How about we secure another line of defense that addresses both health care and national security–the lunch line? Do tater tots, pizza, and soda rise to the level of calling in Janet Napolitano or David Petraeus? Oddly, yes, because the National School Lunch Program was originally created to promote “nutrition in the national defense,” as a solution to young men who were unfit for service in WWI and WWII. The lunch line was actually designed to prepare soldiers for the front lines. (And sadly, 27 percent of the population for military service today are too obese/overweight to serve).
I think that stoves for school kitchens are just as important for our nation’s children as mine-resistant armor is for the vehicles of our brave servicemen and women. Here at home, on the front lines of nutrition as national defense, food service staff are being asked to fight obesity by creating healthful meals without proper equipment, such as knives, ovens, and cold storage space.
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