By Seyyada A. Burney
As summer draws to a close, it’s time for kids to go back to school. Sadly, this often means a return to terribly unhealthy school lunches filled with fried chicken, pizza pockets, sugary drinks, and high-calorie snacks. School food can jeopardize the health and well-being of America’s next generation, but fortunately, it’s also the best place to start addressing the obesity epidemic—one in three children is obese or overweight, increasing the risks of osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and liver problems later in life. This needs to change.
Fostering healthy eating habits at a young age is critical to life-long health. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) feeds 32 million kids every year and is expanding rapidly as more families qualify for free or reduced-price meals. These lunches represent the primary source of nourishment for many children, but few schools have the facilities or the know-how to prepare fresh food—only the ability to reheat froze, processed foods high in sodium and fat. Even cafeterias that serve more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are often forced to subsidize programs using vending machines and snack bars loaded with sugar and high fructose corn syrup due to fiscal deficits and a lack of student interest.
As kids head back to school, Nourishing the Planet outlines 15 innovative ideas and programs that are making school lunches healthier and more sustainable.
1. Higher nutrition standards: Under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can finally set nutritional requirements for school lunches—a measure they implemented earlier this year. First Lady Michelle Obama and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack recently unveiled new national standards for school meals—the first in fifteen years. They require daily fruit and vegetable offerings; more whole grains; only fat-free or low-fat milk; and reduced saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium in school lunches.
2. Cooking from scratch: Contrary to past privatization and outsourcing trends, a University of Michigan study reported that privately managed cafeterias have few economic advantages. Their food options are also more likely to be processed, with higher sugar, fat, and sodium contents and relatively few fresh vegetables. In recent years, entire school districts such as Minneapolis have introduced locally sourced salad bars and have shifted to more on-site preparation in order to serve kids fresher, more nutritious food.