You Are What You Eat: How Important Are School Lunches?

August 7, 2014

Recently, one of my readers requested that I write about the connection between school and nutrition. Of course, children need to have their basic needs met before they can learn; Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts physiological needs at the bottom, followed next by safety needs. Our own experience reminds us that humans cannot concentrate on a task when we are hungry (regardless of whether we are four year olds or forty-four year olds!). Most of us can also tell the difference in our productivity and our focus when we’ve eaten a donut for breakfast versus an omelet. A meal that has protein as well as vitamins and minerals enables kids to perform to the best of their ability. A sugary meal (or no meal at all) often results in lost concentration. Why, then, are there so few enforceable guidelines regarding school nutrition?

 

A few months ago, I watched the powerful documentary “A Place at the Table,” a film that explores the impact of hunger in several communities right here in America. One in four children do not know where their next meal will come from, and many of them are not getting the nutrition they need to allow them to thrive and learn. The film explains the connection between poverty and rising obesity rates, showing the limited access many low-income families have to healthier alternatives to processed and fast foods. If you have the opportunity to view this documentary or to read its companion book, I highly recommend it.

 

In July, researchers funded by the program Bridging the Gap released the results of a study measuring the effectiveness of nutrition standards set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010. The standards have been gradually implemented starting in 2012 and require schools to serve more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains and to limit calories, fat, and sodium in all federally subsidized meals. During the 2012-2013 school year, 21.5 million children in the United States received free or reduced price meals. For many of those children, this is the only well-balanced meal they get each day. On July 1, the “Smart Snacks in Schools” rules went into effect, applying stricter standards to food sold throughout the school day, including snacks sold in vending machines and as part of various fundraising efforts. The study, based on surveys of elementary and secondary school principals around the nation, determined that while students complained about the new meals at first, they are no longer complaining about them. Seventy percent of elementary and middle school principals and sixty-three percent of high school principals said the students “generally like the new lunches.” According to a study released by Harvard researchers in March, significantly more students are eating fresh fruits and vegetables under the new guidelines.

 

The School Nutrition Association, which held its annual conference in Boston last month, is arguing for amendments to the law to allow schools or districts to opt out of the standards for a year if they are losing revenue. The USDA reported that participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by 1.2 million students (3.7%) from 2011- 2013; however, this decline reflects primarily a drop in students paying full price, offsetting the increase in students receiving free or reduced price meals.  To me, this means that students who have the ability to bring in their own lunches from home are more likely to do so, while students whose parents cannot afford to provide an alternative meal are relying upon the school lunch program in even greater numbers than before. For children and teens living in poverty, why wouldn’t the school system want to provide the most balanced and healthful meal possible? Fresh produce is often considerably more expensive than packaged or processed foods (compare the cost of fresh cherries or grapes to that of a bag of potato chips or a jar of peanut butter); that is why families on a limited income rarely purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. (If you are interested in learning more about the reasons for these cost disparities, I again recommend that you watch or read “A Place at the Table.”) That apple or orange on a student’s lunch tray may very well be the only fresh fruit he or she gets today.

 

Food policies vary from state to state, even under the new standards of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Bridging the Gap has a table that highlights Rhode Island’s laws. While our state is strong in certain areas, we certainly have room for improvement in others. And yes, parents do have a role to play in teaching their children to make good choices about food; but wouldn’t it be easier if our children had fewer unhealthy options offered to them during the school day? As far as schools teaching children about nutrition, many schools include it in their Health or Physical Education curriculum; but as you can imagine, with all the focus on test scores in subjects like Math and Language Arts, teaching students about nutrition is not high on the list of priorities.

 

This doesn’t mean we can’t do things differently. The government could take an even stronger stand, banning certain substances or foods from being served to students in school lunches, for example. If lobbyists weren’t so influential in Washington, DC, this might have already happened. Clay Pell, candidate for Governor of Rhode Island, proposes supporting efforts to encourage state schools to purchase locally grown produce, as well as expanding the acceptance of programs such as SNAP and WIC at farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) farms. The Southside Community Land Trust has already increased many Providence citizens’ access to fresh, locally grown food. We have the power to make things better for our children; we just need to make it a priority. 

 

This post originally appeared in GoLocalProv.

 

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