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The Politics of School Lunches

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September 7, 2012

Education and educational spending is always a hot button issue in political campaigns. However, one area that seems to take a back seat is the school’s lunch program. Many students’ lunches are subsidized by the federal government due to families meeting certain income guidelines. The program is designed to allow children of low-income families the opportunity to eat at school on the free and reduced lunches program. It also now extends to breakfast for most schools.

The issue that has been brought to life is the health factor of school lunches. Are school lunches healthy? Jamie Oliver’s show Food Revolution brought a lot of key issues into the spotlight. Do you know what your children are eating at school when you don’t pack a lunch?

Chocolate milk, pizza, French fries, etc. are common staples on school menus. These foods can be high in fat and sodium, and low in nutrition. With increasing rates of obesity among children, it is no wonder that parents and politicians are starting to take notice of the problem.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, proposed by First Lady Michelle Obama, was the first real school lunch reform in over 15 years. The act was designed to add more fruits, veggies, and whole grains to the menu – while limiting the amount of sodium and fat in foods. This was a step in the right direction, but I must say it was a baby step.

French fries, tater tots, and pizza still count as veggies on the school plate and chocolate milk is still passed out in lunch rooms. Given, the chocolate milk is a reduced fat variety and the salt limit on French fries has decreased with the proposal,but  it still doesn’t go far enough to fix the problem.

I witnessed firsthand the types of food that would pass as healthy when my daughter attended a public school Pre-K program. A slice of sausage pizza that looked like it came from the discount aisle of the grocery store and a side of peaches was a frequent item on the menu. Other meals included French toast sticks and maple syrup (with no fruits or veggies) or cinnamon rolls with no sides. The lunches and breakfasts qualified as “healthy” under this act because there was an optional salad bar that the child could go to for “unlimited” fruits and vegetables of their choosing.

As a health conscious parent I know my daughter chose to go to the fruit and veggie bar because I reminded her everyday how important it was. But not every child takes that initiative? It is a very tempting proposition for a 4-year-old to pass on the fruit when they have unlimited maple syrup tastiness in front of them.

I would never be one to impose all my nutritional standards on others though. For example, I think it would be fantastic if all cafeteria food was GMO-free. But, I don’t think I will see that day come anytime soon.  I do feel that certain nutritional standards need to be met, though, since these programs are subsidized by the federal government.

The most obvious solution for parents worried about school lunches is to have them bring one from home. Unfortunately not all students have this option. Whether there are limits in the families budget to provide lunches for their child, or if your school has a “no pack lunch policy,” some families cannot pack lunches for their children. Yes, unfortunately, there are schools that do not allow pack lunches except for “medical reasons”.

What are your thoughts? Do you think more needs to be done to ensure healthy lunch options for students?

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