Posted on Thu, October 15, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
3 Comments | Categories: Farms and Farming, Food Justice, Labeling, News, Current Events, Policy, School Food, Take Action,
by Slow Food USA staffer Gordon Jenkins
This week is National School Lunch Week, as designated by Congress in a law that dates back to 1962. To announce it, the White House issued a press release that began, Every young American deserves access to a wholesome, nutritious lunch. This is noteworthy because it is true and because the reality of school lunch is nowhere near it. More often than not, the lunch served to 31 million young Americans at school is overly processed and unhealthy, and the impact of this problem extends far beyond the cafeteria.
Congress created the National School Lunch Program in 1946 as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well being of the Nations children. At the time, the U.S. was emerging from a war in which an alarming number of army recruits were so malnourished that they were unable to serve. Recognizing that lack of adequate food during the Depression had created a national security risk, Congress created a program to provide every child with a healthy lunch every school day. When President Truman signed the program into law, he declared, No nation is healthier than its children.
This is a lesson we have forgotten. Todays kids are the first in over two centuries to have shorter life expectancies than their parents. We shouldnt gloss over that fact: for the first time in modern history, our kids are unhealthier than we are. Why? Because we let them eat the overly processed foods that have taken over the American diet. Many parents let their kids eat them at home, which is irresponsible though sometimes parents dont have much choice. Letting kids eat them at school is just unacceptable. In this economy, more kids than ever need the guarantee of a healthy meal every day. It is wrong to put a child who relies on school lunch in the situation where the alternative to going hungry is to eat the processed foods that are going to make him sick and keep him from performing well in the classroom. Our nation can do better.
To get involved in Slow Food USA’s Time for Lunch campaign, click here.
The biggest roadblock to fixing school lunch is Congress, which leaves school cafeterias recklessly underfunded. After paying for overhead, the average school cafeteria has only $1 per child to buy food. School food professionals work tirelessly to make due with so little money and they all deserve our respect and thanks for it but at the end of the day, its simply not possible to feed kids real food with only $1 to spend. We need to raise that rate by $1 more per child per day. Those who say that we cant afford it should remember that diabetes treatments cost a lot more than $1 per day in fact, they cost our nation over $117 billion per year. Who is ready to tell a child that we cant afford to protect his health and his ability to succeed, but we can afford everything else that Congress chooses to buy?
In addition, Congress must address the absent nutrition standards for school vending machines and a la carte items in the cafeteria, and should also guarantee funding for Farm to School programs. To ensure that kids develop healthy eating habits, we need to show them that real food tastes good, especially when its made with ingredients from local farms. Gardens are the way to do it: kids who have had the chance to plant and cook fresh fruits and vegetables are far more likely to give them a try in the lunch line.
Last week, Congress slipped a temporary extension of expiring child nutrition programs into its annual agriculture appropriations bill, which means legislators have a years leeway to address a law that was supposed to be reauthorized last month. Its foolish to debate health care while putting off school lunch. In its press release, the White House renewed its commitment to serving healthy meals that will prepare our next generation of leaders to learn and thrive. Congress should be meeting that commitment, by making school lunch a priority and passing a Child Nutrition Act that gives kids real food at school.