School Lunch

Questioning the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and School Lunch Programs

As we continue the 2015 school year, the topic of school lunches and child nutrition programs is hot. The Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act that established the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) five years ago is up for renewal. The HHFKA imposed drastic changes to national school lunch and breakfast programs, which are now required to serve mostly whole grain products, lower-sodium dishes and more fruits and vegetables.

However, there are mixed reviews as to the efficacy of the program and whether the current regulations should stay in place or not.

While First Lady Michelle Obama, who was a big advocate and player in getting the bill passed in Congress originally, thinks the regulations should stay in place, the School Nutrition Association (SNA), once a supporter, is now lobbying to roll back the changes. The SNA is made up of 55,000 school cafeteria professionals that are managing the budgets, implementing the actions and seeing results on the front lines. This Huffington Post article “School Nutrition Group Flip-Flops on Protecting Children’s Health” highlights five points by the SNA that challenge the Act’s reauthorization including one statement as simple as “children won’t eat whole grain-rich foods”.

“We, as students, are concerned about our own health” – Youth For Healthy Schools

Youth For Healthy Schools, a youth and parent organization that advocates “strong school food standards and wellness policies” published this statement that was collectively written by young people of color across the country in support of the reauthorization of the act. They raise an excellent point: how little the students (and their parents) who actually eat at school and are affected by these policies are part of the conversation. And a powerful voice they would have: “We believe a way to heal is by increasing access to real, local foods in schools and for our poorest communities, re-enforcing our beliefs in land and food sovereignty (i.e. the ability to control our own food systems.), and revitalizing small farmers.”

Last weekend’s NY Times piece “Why Students Hate School Lunches” provides an interesting perspective that the HHFKA is so strict that it’s completely unrealistic and ineffective. Author Kate Murphy shows that changes have been costly and generally not well received by students. “Trash cans are overflowing” and new regulations have only “forced manufacturers to re-engineer products”. Murphy points to lunch programs in France, a country with the lowest childhood obesity rate in the Western world. A typical school lunch includes cucumber salad, salmon lasagna, fondue with baguette for dipping and fruit compote, a meal that would be hard pressed to pass the guidelines of the HHFKA due to the refined grains, fat, salt and calories. The author does acknowledge that the culture around food is quite different in France, quoting author Karen Le Billon of “French Kids Eat Everything”; in France there is “no guilt or blame around food,” but rather “it’s more about moderation than deprivation.”

Unfortunately America has put itself in a position that it needs to correct damage that has been done. And even more unfortunately, we’re not even close to having found the solution.

Further Reading

School Nutrition Group Flip-Flops on Protecting Children’s Health [Huffington Post]

Why Students Hate School Lunches [NY Times]

5 Things to Know About the Congressional Battle Over School Lunch [Yahoo Food]

Another food fight? Congress weighs changes to school meal standards as law is to expire [US News]

Photo: Huffington Post

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