Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Balancing Nutrition and Participation in School Lunches

On July 5, 2014, Fox News ran an article in its politics section titled, "Michelle Obama faces off with GOP on school lunch rules." As part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, more fruit, vegetables and whole grains are required in school meals, along with less sodium, sugar and fat. As the article indicates, it was the first update to school lunch rules in decades.

The School Nutrition Association, which originally supported these standards, is now concerned because some school districts are losing money due to lower student participation rates. Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the association states that according to federal data, "More than 1 million fewer students eat lunch at school each day since the first round of standards went into effect in 2012, following decades of steadily increasing participation." She goes on to say, "How can we call these standards a success when they are driving students away from the program?"

House Representative Robert Aderholt of Alabama authored a House bill to fund the Agriculture Department next year to give districts a chance to apply to skip the requirements for one year. He said lunch rules go too far and came too fast for school districts to handle. A vote by the full House is expected after its July Fourth break.

I don't know that skipping the requirements for a year is the answer, but sitting on the Food Advisory Council for our district has allowed me to learn more about what is going on in our local school cafeterias. The largest obstacles the cafeteria managers seem to be facing are waste--because kids who do participate are forced to take vegetables they don't want to eat that end up in the trash can--and lower participation rates. Salad bars where kids can choose what they want to eat seem to be very popular in our school district, but the requirements state cafeteria workers must place the vegetables on the students' trays. We are seeing kids toss those "required" vegetables in the garbage in lieu of those they can choose on their own from the salad bar. In a country where data shows 49 million citizens live in food insecure households (2012), and yet, approximately 40 million tons of food is wasted by US households, retailers and food services each year, this type of waste is almost a sin.

As a mom, I've seen both of my girls who used to participate in our school lunch program, insist upon home lunches since the new standards rolled out. It's not because I pack their lunches with all kinds of junk foods. I just make sure they have the foods they want to eat: carrots, grapes, salad, low sugar treats, and granola. I can also give them an extra treat if they have stayed away from junk food at home--something the cafeteria staff can't do. But let's face it, they don't want sugar free cookies made with whole wheat flour anyway.

Can we get to a better balance for nutrition standards that allows us to reduce waste and tackle our country's hunger problems? I hope so, because this shouldn't be a political issue. It is a moral issue. People shouldn't be going hungry when we are wasting so much food.

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