Healthier School Lunches Could Help Combat Obesity
Every day Donna Charles, a security guard at P.S. 33 Chelsea Prep elementary school, greets hundreds of students and sees the effects of fast food in the neighborhood.
“This is my niece; she’s two years old and overweight,” Charles said, gesturing to a framed picture on her desk of a portly toddler. Her niece loves healthy foods but, Charles claimed, “You see a McDonald's before you see a salad bar.”
Nearly one in three children is overweight or obese in the United States, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and 4.3 million children, ages 10 to 14, will become overweight or obese within the next 24 months. President Obama proclaimed the rise in obesity a crisis and both the Obama administration and American Medical Association declared September “National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.” In addition, the 10 through 17 of October has been named “National School Lunch Week.”
Some feel the answer to this obesity epidemic lies in school lunches. As advocates work to make healthful food more available at schools, Congress has not been able to pass a bill that would fund the food. The Child Nutrition and Women, Infants and Children Reauthorization Act wasn’t reauthorized on September 30 because Democrats were holding out for increased funding. Now a new deadline is looming.
“A new bill must be passed [before December 31] in order for money to continue to be allotted to school food,” said Kelly Moltzen, nutrition and diabetes education coordinator for the Bronx Health REACH Coalition, “regardless of whether or not the bill receives increased funding.”
Governmental involvement in funding school lunches began in 1946 when President Harry Truman established the National School Lunch Act, which supports the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). As of last year, more than 31.3 million children received their lunch through the NSLP.
In 1966, Congress expanded the act by creating the Child Nutrition Act to help meet the dietary needs of children, permanently authorizing the school milk and breakfast program. It may not have been affective enough, however, either in terms of funding or healthy eating. “By the end of the 1970s, The National School Lunch Program suffered from financial and nutritional shortfalls,” wrote Susan Levine in her 2008 book “School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program.”
These shortfalls weren’t addressed on the federal level until 2004 when Congress passed the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act. It’s this bill that expired on September 30.
As Congress wrestles with passing a new bill, advocates are moving forward, working with non-profits and the private sector to get healthier food in school cafeterias.
Chef Ann Cooper of theLunchBox.org, an online toolkit for transforming school food, partnered with Whole Foods Market in 2009 to raise awareness about the need for school lunch improvement. Then, she partnered with Whole Foods again in 2010 to create the “Great American Salad Bar Project,” which has raised funds to put salad bars in at least 300 public schools across the country. Any public school, as long as it’s part of the National School Lunch Program, can apply to Whole Foods for a grant, which are funded by donations. These donations have already reached $1.4 million.
Moltzen, of Bronx Health REACH Coalition, said alternative approaches are important. She said the current USDA guidelines are not good enough.
“What’s important to remember here is that the USDA was set up to represent farmers,” Moltzen said. “It is the marketing arm for agricultural interests and setting up school food standards is only a secondary responsibility. The foods that children eat in schools in the U.S. these days is shockingly unhealthful, but still meet USDA standards.”
Moltzen’s group works with local schools, businesses and community organizations in New York City to create after-school nutrition education programs.
Examples of other non profits working to make kids healthier are Slow Food USA and Better School Food, which educates children in nutritional literacy by helping to develop in-school programs that promote healthy food and exercise. They both also have started school gardens in Atlanta, Georgia, and Chicago for example, where kids plant their own gardens and then harvest and eat what they produce.
While at Donna Charles’ school, where the I Have A Dream Foundation has been working with kids on nutrition, many students appear to be still struggling with their weight. “In the morning, they'll eat McDonald's, in the afternoon they'll have microwaved pizza in the cafeteria, and as a snack they'll eat Pepperidge Farm Goldfish” said Lang senior Céline Robinson, who worked with the children at P.S. 33. “And that's on a healthy day.”
Charles, for one, welcomes advocate involvement, but said the government needs to step up the pace.
“If the government doesn’t get [more] involved, everybody’s going to be obese, not just the kids,” Charles said.