October 14 to 16 is National School Lunch Week. Before you click to another web page while thinking, “that’s nice but why do we need a national week for that,” consider these facts and a few controversies:
1. More than 16 million children in the United States are at risk of hunger.
2. One in five children in the United States struggles to get nutritious food.
3. 20.1 million children in the United States rely on food stamps (that’s about half of the more than 40 million people who receive them).
4. 10.6 million kids who are eligible for a free or reduced-price school lunch do not receive one.
Established in 1946, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has played a key role in fighting childhood hunger in the United States. Every day, 30.5 million children receive a school lunch at a cost of $8.7 billion. The NSLP provides low-cost or free school lunch meals that are nutritionally balanced to qualifying students through subsidies to schools.
School Lunch Program Controversies: Yes, They Tried To Call Ketchup a Vegetable
The NSLP was at first created to absorb farm surpluses and maintain food prices as well as to feed school children. The program has also found itself at the center of more controversy then you could shake a slice of mystery meat at.
A recurring issue has been food safety: a 2009 report charged that fast food restaurants had more rigorous inspection standards for beef and chicken than the school lunch program did. Last year, after reports that students were bring served a processed beef product popularly known as “pink slime,” many education officials found themselves rushing to defend why they were serving this cheaper “meat” to thousands of children.
In 2011, the Obama administration’s attempt to have 1/8 of a cup of tomato paste no longer considered nutritionally equivalent to a 1/2 cup of vegetables but to an 1/8 of a cup of vegetables turned into a brouhaha. After Congress passed a bill blocking the change, some claimed that lobbyists representing pizza and cheese manufacturers — fearful that schools would say their foods were of lower nutritional value and cease to buy them– were pressuring politicians.
Yes, School Lunch Programs Are Needed
These controversies — and don’t forget the proposal during the early years of the Reagan Administration to count relish and ketchup as vegetables — show why school lunches are a topic of huge concern from a political as well as a public health standpoint. Manufacturers vie to win contracts for school lunches, aware of the profits to be made. Educational officials often seem to be more worried about serving the minimum amount of food to meet nutritional standards (and fit their budgets) than to provide healthy meals for students.
School lunch programs not only fight childhood hunger, but also give many kids a chance to eat what might their only nutritious meal of the day. Newly implemented U.S. school lunch standards that limit calories and sodium and call for more fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains have received some negative publicity, about kids throwing out their apple slices and school districts opting out of the program. While whole wheat bread may not be a preferred food for many kids, the school lunch program offers a model of good nutrition at a time when reports about childhood obesity, diabetes and other health concerns have become frequent and fast food is ubiquitous.
Many of us have unpleasant memories of school lunches in cafeterias with sticky tables and lunch monitors blowing their whistles. There’s a simple reason that one feels a bit of envy about the free school lunches in Finland and Sweden and the made-from-scratch meals that Japanese children get. Kids are growing and they need good, healthy, regular meals to help them learn. I can tell you, if I ever forgot to pack my son‘s lunchbox, I’d have to race up to his school to make sure he had it in time.
Photo from Thinkstock
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