School Lunch Program: Upgrade or Intrusion?

Op-Ed

As kids head back to school, the debate surrounding the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s effects on the National Free Lunch Program comes back into the public eye. The act was signed in 2010, authorizing the funding of child nutrition programs and free lunch for schools for the next 5 years. The act, part of the Let’s Move! initiative, resets nutrition standards for schools and has $4.5 billion allocated for its implementation.

Although the 2010 act is new, the National Free Lunch Program (NFLP), designed to offer free and reduced lunches to students of qualifying low-income families, was established in 1946. Schools who offer this program are in turn offered subsidized meals for all students in the school. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture the NFLP operates in over 100,000 public and nonprofit schools and residential childcare institutions, serving reduced-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children in 2012. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has given a makeover to the school lunches provided by the 1946 program – not the first or even fourth it has undergone. The menu now features low fat milk, baked and grilled chicken, and plenty of vegetables. A typical lunch week before and after the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act at an elementary school is reflected in the table below.

lunch comparison table
http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/cnr_chart.pdf

The table below highlights caloric limitations that have been placed on the new meals based on the age of the students.

lunch calorie table
http://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2012/10/05/hungry-vs-healthy-the-school-lunch-controversy

Despite intent to bring more nutritious meals into schools, the new changes have been met by both students and school administrators with contempt. Students and parents who oppose the program generally do so because of the limited choice in food offered to children, as well as the caloric limitations which were based on the average child and therefore did not account for variations in activity levels, height, or metabolism. If the children don’t want to buy the food schools offer, they drop out of the school lunch program, which is exactly what has been happening. In the face of losing even more money from wasted food, many school districts have chosen to drop out of the federally funded NFLP, meaning students who do qualify and need the reduced meals are no longer offered them.

If schools are struggling to convince students to make healthy choices, should they just nix the entire effort? Financially, this makes sense. If public schools were run like private businesses, this act would be written off as a nice attempt at teaching nutrition, but perhaps unprofitable and thus abandoned. But a school is not a business. A school is meant to be a community of parents, faculty and students focused on education. One such lesson still desperately needed is nutrition.

Regardless of the government’s role in school lunch programs, it is evident that the most potential to teach youths about nutrition remains with parents. In the September 2014 issue of Pediatrics Journal, researchers determined there is a significant generational shift among parents of overweight school-aged children in regards to their perception of their child’s health. The study concluded that the majority of parents of overweight children perceived their child as “average,” as long as other children within their child’s peer group were of equal of greater weight. This comparative determination is dangerous, because it has the potential to lead to increasing percentages of overweight children as the perceived norm becomes greater and greater. In light of the study, parents need to understand the nutritional requirements and target health indicators for their children. There is a need for education among parents, as well as students.

Meal choices available in school cafeterias in recent years have been leading to high rates of obesity and diabetes. This is where parents need to step in. There is no doubt that parents want to do what is best for their child, whether this means teaching nutrition solely at home or supporting schools to foster such education. If parents choose to support the teaching in schools, they should embrace the new program and trust it to supply their children with healthy lunches. To assuage parental concerns, schools could host “tastings” for parents, similar to “back to school night”, where parents would have the opportunity to observe and taste the foods their children are being offered. After all, they’ve met the teachers and seen the homeroom, why not also experience the cafeteria? If concerned by the caloric limitations (“My child plays football after school and is always starving”) parents should feel free to supplement the offered school meals with healthy snacks, or perhaps school nurses can approve students for higher calorie portions. However, when comparing the new caloric limits to the old intake from school lunches, the difference is small (825 calories generally served to children 7th-12th grade vs. 750 – 850 calories under the new program for the same age group). The difference between the old and the new lies in what is actually being served.

Yes, the children might complain. They don’t like school lunches. They don’t like the options. Most of it ends up in the trash anyway. But with a little push, children can be guided to embrace the meals placed in front of them. According to Cecilia Enault, Food Services executive director for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, it can take children between 10 to 15 times of exposure before they are willing to try and perhaps like new food. Schools in districts that qualify for the free school lunch program report a high satisfaction rating of the food among their students. The purpose of school lunch programs is not to placate the fickle appetites of children; it is to ensure they are well fed.

As the largest potential to teach nutrition remains in the home, it is important that this potential is embraced so that children will have the opportunity to eat healthy and avoid many illnesses associated with weight gain.

 

Sources:

Hansen, R. Andrew, Dustin T. Duncan, Yelena N. Tarasenko, Fei Tan, Jian Zhang, “Generational Shift in Parental Perceptions of Overweight Among School-Aged Children.” Pediatrics, 134, 481, August 25, 2014.

 

U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Nationa; School Lunch Program.” http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/NSLPFactSheet.pdf. Accessed August 27, 2014.

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Olivia is a graduate of Villanova University where she studied Economics and History, minoring in Gender and Women's Studies. She also has experience working with federal legislatures on health care policy, women's issues, and Internet safety.

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