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More fruits, fewer fries

National School Lunch Program gets a healthy makeover

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April 24th, 2012

Every now and then, the issue of school lunches captures the nation s attention. Who can forget the brouhaha that ensued when the Reagan administration famously tried to re-classify ketchup and pickle-relish as vegetables instead of condiments? And just last year, some in Congress defended the idea that the sauce on a slice of pizza should be counted as a vegetable. School lunches made headlines again in 2012. In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated the standards for the meals served in public and nonprofit private schools across the country for the first time in more than 15 years. This is particularly good news given the fact that childhood obesity is at an all-time high. According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity now affects 17% of all children and adolescents in the U.S. triple the rate from just one generation ago.

What s on the new menu?

Nearly 32 million children eat lunch at school every day; more than 20 million of them are low-income children whose families are struggling to make ends meet. The school lunch program offers free or reduced-price meals to children who qualify, but any child in a participating school may purchase a lunch. The meals received at school are the only solid meals some children get all day long. As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet, says First Lady Michelle Obama. And when we re putting in all that effort the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria. The new standards make the same changes that many parents are already encouraging at home, including regular offerings of both fruit and vegetables; serving more whole grains; offering only fat-free or low-fat milk; limiting calories through portion size; and focusing on reducing the amount of saturated fat, trans-fat, and sodium in school meals.

A centuries-old tradition

The concept of providing children with a nutritious meal at school is centuries old. In 1790, Munich, Germany, developed a program that combined teaching and feeding hungry, vagrant children. Back then, the meal consisted mainly of soup made from potatoes, barley, and peas. Meat was not included because of its high cost. In America, small programs developed in cities like Boston and Philadelphia as early as 1894, but soon after the seminal bookPoverty by Robert Hunter was published in 1904, the U.S. effort to feed hungry children at school intensified. InPoverty, Hunter estimated that there were as many as 70,000 hungry children in New York City alone. If it is a matter of principle in democratic America that every child shall be given a certain amount of instruction, Hunter said in the book, let us render it possible for them to receive it, as monarchial countries have done, by making full and adequate provision for the physical needs of the children who come from the homes of poverty. During the Great Depression, cities and states found it impossible to fund their school lunch programs and turned to the federal government for help. The government responded with New Deal programs that both fed the nation s schoolchildren and simultaneously employed many adults to prepare school meals.

A matter of national security

World War II military leaders saw firsthand how important nutrition was when they were forced to reject scores of recruits suffering from stunted growth and malnutrition. The problem was of such concern that military leaders lobbied Congress to find a way to ensure that American youth would be strong and fit for service. In 1946, the National School Lunch Program became law. In 2012, the military is still concerned about the fitness of American youth. Today we face a similar crisis only it is not malnourishment, but improper nourishment, that threatens our national security interests, says retired four-star Air Force General Richard E. Hawley. Hawley is also a member of Mission: Readiness, a non-partisan group of retired military leaders. Considering that many children consume as much as 40% of their daily calories during school hours, improving the nutritional value of school meals will have a profound impact on their future health, says Hawley. Efforts to improve school nutrition and get junk food out of schools are critical to reducing childhood obesity and ultimately improving national security. michele.harris@erickson.com

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