Cafeteria food has always been the brunt of kids' jokes. Many of us remember the grilled cheese sandwich that stuck to the plate when you turned it upside down, and the egg soufflé that jiggled when you poked it. But even that is a far cry from what's served now.
In the midst of a growing childhood obesity crisis, school food now means federally subsidized chicken nuggets, low-grade hamburgers, french fries, hot dogs and pizza. "Cooking" usually involves a centralized kitchen similar to a fast food assembly line.
According to Ron Haskins, senior fellow of Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, "behind the overcooked vegetables and steam-table pizza that American children confront each school day is an industry that rivals defense contractors and media giants in its ability to bring home the federal bacon." That industry is agribusiness -- and, via the National School Lunch Program, it has a chokehold on our kids.
The commodities-driven National School Lunch Program, meant to feed 60 million children healthy food, has instead turned into a major public health threat. The most vulnerable in our society are suffering the most severe consequences, including epidemic levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses. While we need to be able to include more children in the School Lunch Program, we also need to be able to feed them higher-quality, more nutritious food, or else we are defeating the purpose of the program.
Over the past three decades, rates of obesity in the U.S. have more than doubled among children ages 2 to 5 and more than tripled among those ages 6 to 11. Today, approximately 9 million U.S. children over the age of 6 are considered obese. America's overweight teens consume an average of 700 to 1,000 calories more than they are required each day.
The National School Lunch Program and its affiliated programs have unmatched size and scope, serving more than 35 million lunches every day in almost every school in the U.S., costing taxpayers more than $8.5 billion. Close to 20 million K-12 students receive up to two meals a day, five days a week. The program was recently expanded to include all children enrolled in Head Start and child nutrition programs. The summer food service program feeds 18 million low-income children.
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Where does agribusiness come in? Schools participating in the National School Lunch Program receive cash subsidies and commodity foods for each meal served plus bonus commodities from agricultural surplus. The program's authorizing language requires that participating schools serve the most abundant commodities -- mostly milk and meat, with few fruits and vegetables. In fact, the ties between the government and the commodities industry, aided and abetted by poor nutritional choices by state and local food service officials, trumps federal nutritional guidelines resulting in menu offerings that resemble fast food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture purchases hundreds of millions of pounds of pork, beef, and other animal products as well as surplus corn and wheat primarily as an economic benefit to agricultural interests. This might have been a defensible idea a century ago, when a third of our population worked as farmers; now, only 2 percent of our workforce is in agriculture. However, to help 2 percent of our citizens, these commodities are donated to the School Lunch Program and other food assistance programs. Unfortunately for our children, many of these foods are unhealthy.
Next year, The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, which includes school lunches, will expire and the renewal battle will begin. We must dramatically improve the federal nutrition requirements that guide this program, weaken the ties between the School Lunch Program and the commodities markets, revolutionize the quality of food in our schools, label the salt, fat, and sugar content of each meal served, and educate school officials, regulators and the American public about the School Lunch Program and its potentially disastrous implications for our children's health.
We need a Congressional mandate for higher nutritional values for the School Lunch Program to improve the quality and types of food that are served in K-12 schools, with an emphasis on local foods and organics. However, that's useless unless we complement it with revamped nutrition curriculums for children and parents so that they can learn the value of good nutrition in preventing disease.
Significant progress can and must be made in overhauling school lunches. It will take millions of voices to bring about this change. The cost to the next generation is too high for this battle to be lost.