America finally seems open to the message that the way we feed our children, with convenience often trumping nutrition, can worsen their health and shorten their lives. People are banding together to work for change. Now the federal government needs to get on board with changing the national school lunch program.
The sorry state of school cafeterias — which serve lunch to 30 million children daily and breakfast to 11 million — was highlighted in the recently concluded ABC-TV series Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. Oliver, a British chef credited with upgrading England's school food, chose Huntington, W.Va., to begin a similar effort in America. To anyone who doesn't frequent school cafeterias, the series was eye-opening.
Like school cafeterias throughout America, Huntington's school kitchens regularly dished out pizza for breakfast, chicken nuggets and fries and such for lunch, and sweetened milk. School kitchens do little original cooking with fresh ingredients anymore, instead serving heavily processed foods laden with fats, salt and additives. And many school districts have capitulated to students' tastes for junk, opening a la carte lines for fries and pizza, and installing vending machines that dispense high-calorie sodas and snacks.
Oliver lent celebrity to the movement to change children's diets, but he didn't start it. It has grown quietly for several years, seeded by parents and nonprofits worried about documented declines in children's health. One example: The Colorado-based Lunch Box Project, started by American chef Ann Cooper, assists schools that want to serve fresh instead of processed foods.
The White House and first lady Michelle Obama also have joined the cause. Just Tuesday, as part of a sweeping report, the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity listed improving school lunches as one key to improving the health of the nation's children — 22 percent of whom are classified as obese. President Barack Obama has called for Congress to spend $1 billion more annually on the school food program during the next decade.
Congress is due to reauthorize the national school food program for another five years, but it needs to add more money and revamp guidelines. A fresh, varied diet cannot be provided for the pittance per meal the government pays now, and school kitchens need new cooking equipment and retrained staff.
Without change, more of America's children will struggle with obesity and suffer disease and shortened lives. Statistics show it is happening already. A report last month from Mission: Readiness — a nonprofit group of retired military officials — warned that already one-quarter of young Americans weigh too much to qualify for the military. The school lunch program isn't the only culprit in the increase in childhood obesity, but it is one problem that Congress and local school districts can fix.