How can we make school lunches both healthy and tasty?
Thursday, October 08, 2015
A recent article in The New York Times — "Why Students Hate School Lunches" — has sparked off quite a debate in the education world. Thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which took effect in 2012, and other similar strategies, 30 million kids have access to healthy school lunches every day.
Most are from low-income families, but they do join others in eating healthier meals and reversing the national childhood obesity trend that has become a major concern in recent years. Experts are of the opinion that continuous supply and improvement to the nutrition of food and beverages available on campuses will lead to better student health and more energy to learn.
The NY Times report admitted school meals have definitely become healthier, but stressed the fact that more students are rejecting these in favor of packed lunches. Speaking to school districts across the nation they found the amount of rejected food is increasing while cafeteria sales dwindle.
To counter this, there needs to be a little relaxation of the stringent rules and guidelines. For example, maybe the sodium levels and percent whole grains can be tweaked to make the meals more palatable. As Congress prepares to reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, these considerations have become imperative.
There is no doubt the number of kids eating new, improved free meals has risen in the past three years. If we want better health for our kids, fewer cases of high blood pressure rates and childhood obesity, then these efforts must continue.
Survey results have noted that diseases related to childhood obesity cost a staggering $190.2 billion per year to treat. Investing in good health early in life will significantly reverse the longevity risks the next generations may face.
The problem goes beyond individual health. Obesity makes 1 in 3 young adults unfit to serve in the military, undermining the strength of our armies and national security. A W.K. Kellogg Foundation poll shows 70 percent Americans believe the healthier meals are right for our children.
The above data released by the USDA contradicted the NY Times report, but there is definitely food for thought here. While we cannot deny the success of the program, we also cannot ignore that the meals must be more attractive. They are kids after all, and none of us really liked eating healthy when we were young.
The other issue that needs a little consideration is that with slashed funds and lower sales, school cafeterias are suffering. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents the nation's cafeterias, has proposed bringing back sodium and refined grains to pair with fruits and vegetables on lunch trays. It may be harsh to brand them as opportunists because they need to survive, but a little more flexibility couldn't hurt.
There are various pieces of data to consider here. On one hand, more students are getting nutritious meals now. On the other hand, school districts report that fewer students are buying lunch. Children from low-income families are eating healthier school lunches, but those from affluent families are choosing to brown bag theirs. For them, these are more appealing than the cafeteria fare but perhaps not as healthy.
A recent survey by SNA revealed that 58 percent of the nation's school districts have seen a decline in cafeteria sales and substantial financial loss in the last three years. Out of these, 90 percent think the reason is "decreased student acceptance of meals." Now they have to dip into general funds to survive, which is stressing out the already-strained funds.
Congress and other authorities must find middle ground if they want to save the whole system. We have to consider all kids — from the affluent to those who are getting free or subsidized meals. By relaxing some of the nutrition standards, this could be achieved.
SNA wants relaxed rules for fruits or vegetables as part of the lunch tray, snacks and a la carte items, as well as in bread options. Proponents of the rules say this step back would be devastating.
What can be done, however, is increasing funding for the program, and starting a mentoring program to help districts as well as students align themselves with the healthy changes.
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