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Healthy School Lunches Could End Obesity Cycle

By Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D.

This opinion piece was printed in Cleveland's The Plain Dealer on Jan. 25, 2010.

It’s not a bully stealing their lunch money. It’s the recession. In a clear illustration of the economy’s effect on families, registration for free school lunch and food stamps has hit the ceiling.

The number of food stamp recipients has shot up by about 10 million in just the past two years. The program now feeds one in every four children in the country. And nearly 20 million children now receive free or reduced-price lunch through the National School Lunch Program.

As a dietitian, I know how important school food programs are to families struggling to survive this tough economy. But I also think it’s critical to acknowledge how unhealthy and downright unpalatable many school lunches are. As Congress gears up to reauthorize key legislation that regulates child nutrition programs, lawmakers need to face up to what we’re feeding students.

Kids need help getting enough to eat—and the federal government is responding by providing schools with thousands of tons of surplus meat products that wouldn’t pass safety or quality standards set by many fast-food restaurants, according to a recent USA Today investigation.

Under current legislation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers cheap commodities that are processed into chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and other unhealthful choices. In 2007, schools used the majority of their child nutrition funds to purchase meat, dairy, and eggs, and only about 20 percent to fruits and vegetables.

Hunger and nutrition aid are complex issues. No child should go hungry. And it’s clear that the government’s safety-net nutrition programs are struggling to meet unprecedented demand. But high-fat, low-quality foods crowding lunch lines leads to poor eating habits and even puts children at risk of foodborne illnesses, according to the USA Today investigation.  

The Institute of Medicine recently released a report calling for an overhaul of the school lunch program. Their recommendations? Fill lunch lines with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Cut down on sodium and fat. Keep processed meats to a minimum. Include vegetarian meal options. These changes would help children maintain a healthy weight and avoid the chronic illnesses already plaguing many of their peers.

School districts are already working hard to improve meals. Some schools have added new vegetarian options and want to provide even more plant-based choices. But as schools face the same financial crunch that caused the food security crisis, many have trouble incorporating new items.

In just the past three decades, the prevalence of severe obesity in children ages 2 to 19 has tripled. Not surprisingly, health care costs are rising—adding to the already heavy burden falling into the government safety net. The journal Health Affairs recently published a study finding that the cost of hospitalizing obese children nearly doubled between 1999 and 2005.

President Obama and Congress showed their concern for children's health when they passed legislation to give children of low-income working parents access to medical care. But if they don’t provide these same children with healthful food, they’re going to see more and more of them in the doctor’s office.

Congress will soon focus on the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which helps determine what ends up on school lunch trays. The new act should facilitate the consumption of healthy, nutrient-dense foods that are known to be lacking in children’s diets—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, vegetarian meals.

It's crucial that lunches provided by the National School Lunch Program promote the health of all children, especially as even more families sign up.
Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D., is a staff nutritionist with the nonprofit group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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