The 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act was approved by the Senate on August 6th. It is now waiting for House approval. Here are the bill's three guiding concepts: First, expand program access to reduce childhood hunger; second, improve nutritional quality to promote health and address childhood obesity: and third, simplify program management and improve program integrity.
While it appears to be a dream come true, there is the underlying problem that the proposed 6-cent increase in funding per child may not be enough to reduce obesity as planned. I should clarify with the aid of Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolution:
- 31 million American children eat lunch at school, funded through USDA’s Child Nutrition Program. It was set up after the war to feed hungry children and deal with surplus agricultural commodities.
- It provides an important safety net for kids in low income families – more than 60% of lunches are free or reduced price.
- 11 million children also get breakfast at school under the program.
- Federal government reimburses schools a flat rate of 25 cents per lunch, and $2.68 for those provided free.
- Only about $1 of that goes on the food.
- The School Nutrition Association estimates it costs more like $3 to produce lunch – still cheaper than a cappuccino at Starbucks – but schools have to find the extra money, and often it comes from the sale of nutritionally poor foods sold through vending machines and snack lines.
- The federal school meals budget is $11.9 billion a year. By comparison, healthcare spending on obesity is already $147 billion.
So the 6 cent increase adds to the 25 cents/$2.68 reimbursed by the government stated above. Sure, the current price spent on food per student is close to one dollar and this is the first time in close to 30 years since any increase has occurred, but will 6 cents even begin to help remove the processed and high fructose corn syrup components in school lunches that currently lend a hand to childhood obesity?
Now I do not blame obesity solely on school lunch. To me obesity is due to a lack of physical exercise and types of food consumed. So, how do we tackle both at the same time? After reading more about Jaime's mission, perhaps you will come up with some ideas. A few years back, I thought, Why not enlist the local community? Why not create these experiences in the classroom to then share with families?
After witnessing students eat sugary foods for breakfast and hot Cheetos for snack, our school community decided to teach students where food comes from and how it grows through the creation of a community garden. Students took part from the beginning as they broke ground through digging and learning about our desert "soil." They were part of the planting process by choosing where to place plants and herbs. As the edibles grew, the students sampled. When visitors came to the classroom, there was always a willing tour guide in class to show and teach our guests about what was growing. I never thought I would head a 7 year old say, "I love chard" or another state they "preferred kale over greens." It transformed our classroom as students were eager to water the plants of check for tomato horn worms invading the plants. We culminated the year with a harvest celebration, a stir-fry of veggies, and a first experience with tofu for many students.
Learning and teaching did not stop in the classroom. Students asked their parents to start home gardens. We worked with the local community food bank to integrate the surrounding community in its goal for sustainability.On a field trip to their facility, students learned about food security, farmer's markets, and worm composting. The edible garden became a class in our after school program, giving students the tools to take charge of keeping the harvest growing.
Do students still eat sweet, processed, high fructose corn syrup items? You bet. It's in the chocolate milk and muffins served at breakfast, but their participation in the growing food has opened their eyes and mouths to new things. Students now beg to break off broccoli from the stems of the plants and pull up carrots to munch on while outside sketching. It's a step.
Sometime this week take a tour of your school cafeteria during lunch. Talk with students about what they eat, why they eat it, and how they think it benefits them as thinkers. I walk with my students through the school lunch line daily. As we wait, I have the opportunity to peer into the lunchboxes students bring and, of course, get to see the four choices offered as school lunch. Oh, the things I see!
Many believe no more money should be allocated for educational programs including school lunch. Are we really saving money? In the future, won't these same students likely become a significant part of the 1 in 3 overweight or obese Americans? Future medical costs will outweigh the extra DOLLAR (at least) needed in order to bring healthy, delicious food to school cafeterias. How much are we willing to put in our future? What do your students think?