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The Physicians Committee

School Lunch Program Needs a Stimulus Package

By Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D.
April 28, 2009

Tens of billions of dollars in public money to Bank of America and Citigroup. About $170 billion in aid to AIG. And for public school students in Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose parents fall behind on paying their school lunch tab? A cold cheese sandwich.

You hear a lot of talk these days about making sure children have access to healthy foods. But as a dietitian who works with school food service directors across the country, I can only hope the federal government will back such rhetoric with real resources.

Albuquerque's cheese-sandwich policy is hardly unique. Nor is it hard to understand. While AIG executives ponder whether to spend or return their million-dollar bonuses, school food service directors face a very different math problem. They are trying to put together healthy lunches for about a dollar a day per student, after labor costs and overhead.

Sometimes that means cheese sandwiches for kids whose parents can't pay their bills. All too often, it means "healthy" takes a back seat to "cheap." But Congress will soon have an opportunity to change that grim equation when lawmakers revise the Child Nutrition Act, which regulates the National School Lunch Program.

Schools want to serve healthy meals, but they need help. Food prices are high. Growing unemployment is raising demand for free or low-cost school lunches. And many children today have taste buds more attuned to cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza than healthy fruits and vegetables.

Some students are going hungry. Many others have the opposite problem: Cheap and unhealthy food has left them overweight and facing a high risk of diabetes and other diet-related health problems.

Reform is critical. Decades ago, when Congress created the National School Lunch Program, the idea was for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide monetary aid and commodity foods to schools to make sure children received nutritious meals.

But the system now seems more aimed at benefiting American agribusiness than ensuring healthy school lunches. Every year, the USDA buys up millions of pounds of surplus beef, pork, and other high-fat meat products to distribute to cash-strapped food service programs.

Students trudge through lunch lines packed with subsidized meat and cheese products, while schools struggle to provide fruits, vegetables, and low-fat plant-based meals. The federal government's own School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study has found that 80 percent of schools serve too much high-fat food to comply with federal guidelines.

The effects of meat-heavy diets on children's health are dire. The artery walls of overweight 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. And one in three young people born in 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life.

Scientific evidence shows that consuming more plant-based foods can help prevent obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Both the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association have passed resolutions supporting vegetarian options on school lunch menus. However, federal child nutrition legislation still offers no provisions for plant-based meals.

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. Federal policies should help all schools provide a plant-based meal option every day.

The Child Nutrition Act presents an unparalleled opportunity to improve school lunches. Even as politicians debate the pluses and minuses of bonuses and bailouts, surely we can all agree that improving our children's health is the best investment we can make in our nation's future.

Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D., is a staff nutritionist with the nonprofit group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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

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