Today’s young people may be the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents, according to recent research. One major problem is unhealthy food. Expanding waistlines are setting children up for unprecedented rates of diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems that could cut years off their lives.
Concerned parents and health officials have taken modest first steps to correct the problem, pressuring companies to stop advertising sugary cereals and asking schools to end bake sales. However, the central issue has been largely ignored. Healthy school lunches can go a long way toward improving child nutrition and can teach children eating habits that can last a lifetime. Too often, foods served in cash-strapped lunchrooms are high in fat, cholesterol, and calories.
That could change this year. Congress is revising the Child Nutrition Act and the National School Lunch Act, which play a critical role in determining what foods are served in schools. Under current legislation, the federal government floods lunch lines with processed meats and fatty cheese products. Old rules require schools to pack unrealistically high calorie levels into lunches. Many schools want to serve lower-calorie meals and more fruits, vegetables, and other low-fat vegetarian foods to help students stay healthy, but they need changes in the law to make it happen. Schools that are not yet prioritizing health in menu planning need to be pushed to do so.
The Child Nutrition Act reauthorization offers an extraordinary opportunity to revolutionize school meals across the country.
A Weighty Problem
When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the original Child Nutrition Act on Oct. 11, 1966, he said, “Good nutrition is essential to good learning.” The Act expanded federally assisted meal programs, including the National School Lunch Program, in an attempt to improve children’s nutrition. More than 31 million children now eat lunch provided by the National School Lunch Program, and the economic downturn is pushing more families to sign up.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s selection procedures for school foods emphasize many products that are too high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Federal child nutrition policies have the goal of providing nutritious meals to children, but they also aim to boost agricultural industries that often produce unhealthy foods. In 2005, the USDA allocated close to 60 percent of food commodity funds to meat, dairy, and egg products, and provided less than 5 percent to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Day after day, students across the country file through lunch lines offering hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and sausage pizza, even as their school food service managers would prefer to provide better options. California, Florida, Hawaii, and New York have passed resolutions encouraging schools to provide vegetarian meals. However, most school districts in these and other states have not yet taken this important step.
It’s hard to miss the effects of meat-heavy diets on children’s health. The artery walls of overweight and obese children are looking more like those of an average 45-year-old, according to a study presented at the American Heart Association’s 2008 convention. In the United States, one in three children born since the year 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life, according to government estimates.
Writing Good Nutrition into Law
The reauthorization of the Child Nutrition and National School Lunch Acts has the potential to reverse these devastating disease epidemics. Federal nutrition policies impact what American children eat every day.
Mountains of scientific evidence show that plant-based foods can help prevent obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Resolutions of the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association already support providing vegetarian meals as a regular part of the school lunch menu. However, there are still no provisions for plant-based meals in federal child nutrition legislation.
Congress needs to revamp child nutrition policy to give all children in America the opportunity to eat healthful foods. The USDA’s commodity program should select foods based on current scientific evidence about the role of diet in health. The new legislation needs to give schools access to more fruits and vegetables, and it should help all schools provide a plant-based meal option every day. Calcium-rich nondairy beverages, such as soymilk, should be available to students and should not require a note from home or from a doctor.
Instead of discouraging schools from serving healthy foods, the new legislation needs to reward schools that take extra steps to provide nutritious meals. The USDA should increase federal funding for schools with meals high in fiber and low in saturated fat.
Most schools know that plant-based foods are healthier than meat and cheese products. But unfortunately, many school food service directors are forced to keep putting these unhealthy foods on students’ trays. America’s schools need help from the federal government to ensure that all students have access to foods that promote their long-term health. A strong federal investment in good food for children pays off for many years.