By Kathleen Rogers and Anthony Geraci
Over 50 million kids headed back to school in the United States this year with the promise of a healthier lunch menu, thanks to the "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act." Rolling out some of the first major changes to the National School Lunch Program in years, the new law provides some additional funding for each meal served and requires schools to serve more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as more sources of protein. The law also encourages the creation of school gardens, farm-to-school programs, nutrition education programs and other positive developments.
The change comes amid an epidemic of childhood obesity, fed in part by a school lunch system that was stacked against the kids. With a few giant corporations monopolizing the programs nationwide, making millions, and calling the shots with school administrators, it is little wonder that a long-term University of Michigan study found that middle school children who ate the school lunches on a regular basis were "more likely to be overweight or obese, develop poorer eating habits and have high levels of 'bad' cholesterol compared to those who bring lunches from home."
For those taking comfort in the fact that their children aren't poor enough to qualify: It makes little difference if you are rich or poor when it comes to the school lunch program. All of our kids that eat in public school cafeterias are eating the same bad food regardless of income level. Some get it free, and some pay for it. (And it's worth mentioning that the recent complaints about the new calorie limits simply underscore the fact that all kids eating school lunch come to the table hungry. Ask any parent of a teenager about volume versus value.)
Make no mistake: The school breakfast and lunch programs feed millions of children who cannot get enough or any food at home. For some children, school provides the only food they will eat. And the number of kids who qualify for a free school lunch is going up. As our economy slid downhill, the number of children registering for the National School Lunch Program climbed -- up 25 percent in some states.
Despite increased public focus on obesity and health, children's health and nutrition in the U.S. is in a state of crisis -- one that affects our nation's educational success, job readiness, global competitiveness, the surging cost of healthcare and environmental sustainability. The importance of school food in solving this crisis can hardly be overstated, yet the food that has been provided to many schools is some of the lowest-quality food in the country. Heavily processed and treated with pesticides and preservatives, the food served in U.S. schools today is lower in nutrients than fresh, local food, some of it having traveled 3,000 miles on its journey to our children's lunch plates. We all know that fresh food, if prepared properly, delivers more nutrients, reduces carbon emissions, connects schools to their communities and benefits the local economy. Why an apple grown on the west coast is served for lunch to east coast kids from major apple-producing states is beyond us.
With the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act's emphasis on healthy, sustainable eating, we now have a unique and significant window of opportunity to guide its implementation.
What is the fastest way to change the system? Most experts agree that the power to fast-forward the revolution lies in the hands of both school food directors and parents. School food directors -- who collectively have more than $1 billion in buying power -- have been accused in the past of having inappropriate relationships with the large school food monopolies and lacking the expertise and energy to buck the system.
So, how do we create change? We believe that one of the best ways to revolutionize our school food is to turn our school food buyers and planners into entrepreneurs. For example, many school food directors around the country are turning abandoned city properties into school food farms. Others are creating co-ops and small farm consolidators so that local farmers can get a piece of the action.
Entrepreneurial food service directors are only part of it. Moving this process forward will also require serious and steady pressure on school food buyers and school district administrators from parents, communities, local food growers and others.
The right to step in and the power to decide what our kids are eating belong to us. After all, it is our tax dollars that feed the program. That means educating parents and turning them into advocates for their kids' health. All school administrators and teachers know that there is no more powerful advocate for a child than a fully engaged and slightly pissed-off parent. The advent of the new school lunch standards is a perfect and meaningful opportunity to help get parents reengaged on their children's health and education. A parent that is informed and engaged about school lunch translates into a parent who will think more about nutritious food at home.
We should also use this opportunity as a way to educate students about the benefits of good nutrition -- and not just those impacting their weight or overall health, which they take for granted. Studies have been pouring in for many years that prove that what kids are eating impacts their test scores; their ability to concentrate; the levels of school violence; and students' good feelings about themselves. And nowhere is this as important as in low-income schools where our children are suffering the most.
At the end of the day, we all want the same thing. And we have the opportunity to do something really important right now. This is much more than just putting a healthy meal in front of our children every day. It's about getting a healthy kid in front of our teachers ready to learn. Why when we spend billions of dollars on school facilities and books and have such high expectations that our teachers will churn out children with 21st century skills do we not focus that same amount of energy to assess whether our students are hungry, jacked up on sugar or somnolent from a high fat lunch?
A great way to start a national conversation about the new school food standards and what we can do to bolster them is National School Lunch Week, which runs from October 15th to October 19th this year. The week-long observance, which is a largely untapped opportunity, creates a nationwide platform to start the dialogues -- and perhaps a broader revolution.
Kathleen Rogers is president of Earth Day Network. Anthony Geraci is director of food service for Memphis City Schools.