By Stett Holbrook
I feel as if summer just started, but already I'm reading about back-to-school sales and getting kids ready for another year. While I doubt that many grade-school students feel the same way, I'm looking forward to the start of school this year. This fall, Congress is scheduled to take up two school nutrition bills. With Barack Obama in the White House, change could be coming to the National School Lunch Program. And change is long overdue. The National School Lunch Act of 1946 was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman with noble-sounding intentions. It guaranteed a hot lunch to every school kid who couldn't afford one. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that oversees the program, approximately 30.5 million students receive free or reduced-price lunches each school day. But what was supposed to be a way of ensuring needy kids get enough to eat so they can pay attention in class has become a national disgrace.
Making sure kids don't go hungry sounds like a high-minded idea, but the lunch program was really established as a way to support already heavily subsidized farms by passing off their surpluses to schools. In effect, schools became the garbage cans for what the market didn't want. The program benefits agribusiness, not kids. Michelle Obama has gladdened the hearts of Alice Waters–loving, Michael Pollan–quoting foodies everywhere with her involvement in the White House garden. Many in the so-called good-food movement see her as an ally and are looking for her to be a champion for school lunch reform because her focus at the garden has been involving children in gardening and cooking. Many food-policy analysts are watching to see what role she and the president will play when the Child Nutrition Act comes up for congressional reauthorization next month. This is the opportunity for Congress to right the many wrongs in the way we feed our kids at school. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is on the right track. The group supports increasing the number of vegetarian and vegan meals served in school cafeterias because current menus are too high in saturated fat and cholesterol and deficient in fiber, fresh produce and grains. Check them out at www.healthyschoollunches.org. The website includes an online petition urging Congress to adopt a healthier school lunch policy that provides for vegetarian-based meals.
Reforming school lunches will be very challenging, especially in California. For one thing, schools are broke, and spending more on fresh, higher-quality food instead of frozen commodity foodstuffs is going to be difficult. Of course, schools shouldn't bear all the blame for fat and unhealthy kids. Parents are the single most important factor in what a child eats. If parents eat at McDonald's and guzzle two-liter bottles of Coke at the dinner table, kids will too. But schools are supposed to educate children in many subjects, and one of those subjects should be what constitutes a healthy meal. Sadly, that lesson is seldom taught.
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