In many households, children’s health is practically on life support. The heart rate slows a little more with each passing day as fruit punch and French fries comprise kids’ daily allowance of fruits and vegetables. For some optimists, a bill that recently passed the Senate jolted this nutrition flat-liner to a healthy pace. To me, though, it’s just putting a small Band-Aid on a major problem.
On August 5, the Senate passed the Childhood Nutrition Act (also called the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act”), which is now in the hands of the House of Representatives. If passed as is, the legislation would install numerous changes in school cafeteria meals aimed at ending childhood hunger, reducing obesity and improving kids’ diets.
Who could argue with these noble initiatives? The premise of the bill is important. In America, kids’ nutrition is often bound by two extremes. Many children are hungry, while others are eating to excess and facing alarming rates of obesity and other health problems like diabetes. And then there’s this oxymoron to deal with: far too many children are eating their fill but are nutrient deprived thanks to poor food choices. It’s vital that we take care of this generation’s nutrition problem…but if we’re going to fix the problem, let’s really fix it.
What I mean is that some of the changes in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act look great on paper, but one must question whether they’ll actually get the job done. For instance, schools will be required to meet new nutrition guidelines and I’m thrilled that this includes vending machines (a huge loophole that was not addressed in older rules). Though the actual guidelines for meals must still be hammered out by the Department of Agriculture, schools probably will be allowed to continue selling pizza and other cafeteria greats. Where’s the progress in that?
Here’s another major problem in my view. Legislators are high-fiving each other for increasing the reimbursement rate for federal-sponsored school meals. This is wonderful— and long overdue, as the last increase was in 1973! But, they’re only giving schools another six cents per meal. The 2009–2010 meal reimbursement was $2.68 in 14 states, per the Act, bringing the reimbursement to a whopping $2.74. What could this meager 2.2% increase buy? Maybe some syrupy canned peaches if you’re lucky. Certainly not a mixed greens side salad or something else with real nutrition. Ironically, according to the very same legislation, the Institute of Medicine estimates that to make lunches healthier would cost an extra six to nine percent at minimum. For the six cents to equal a six percent increase, lunches would have to cost $1.00. Too bad lunches in most areas have price tags that are two-and-a-half times that amount.
At the same time, there’s a good chance that schools will be prohibited from selling candy bars and sugary sodas that were often used as fundraisers for extracurricular actives, per The New York Times. If schools can’t rely on this money, one can guess that many will cut corners to make up the difference by selling anything appealing that marginally applies under the new rules. Again, candy bars and soda have no place in a healthy school lunch, but I just don’t feel that a couple extra cents will make kids healthier.
One (Small) Step
Given the government’s deficit spending, I can’t blame lawmakers for not reaching deeper for greater reimbursement. And, I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers to solve the nation’s poor eating habits. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that lawmakers are attempting to fix the problem our nation is facing with its population of unhealthy and/or undernourished kids. I just wish that this movement toward making meaningful changes to the National School Lunch Program were a leap toward progress, not just a step. WF
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, September 2010