Lunchtime memories from elementary school still hold a very special place in my heart. I remember bobbing up and down in the hot, sticky lunch line, likely standing on tippy toes, anxious for a glimpse of the rations being slopped into square slots on beige plastic trays. A good day would be greasy pizza or day-glo orange mac-n-cheez; a bad day would resemble roast beef with lukewarm au jus that smelled of beef flavor and rust. I would practically drool thinking about my own little corner of heaven if I spotted rectangles of droopy pizza and ice cream cups, already planning to wash everything down with a quaff of chocolate milk. I wouldn’t even give a second thought to the olive-green string beans or mushy corn niblets on my tray that would inevitably find a new home in the child-sized trash bins at the back of the cafeteria.
School lunch may be a straightforward concern for a child, even a future dietitian, but experts have been pleading with the government to revitalize nutrition served up in American schools. This is because the United States is suffering from an unbelievable paradox: Nearly 1/3 of American children are overweight or obese, while 16.7 million are food insecure, meaning they lack adequate money or resources for food. The good news is the Senate just passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to relieve hunger while attacking childhood overweight and obesity. The act reauthorizes and expands accessibility to federal women, infant, and child nutrition programs already in place, but major updates are wrapped up in a $4.5 billion package that takes giant steps toward meeting child health goals over the next ten years.
Major provisions affecting school-age children include ensuring that all foods, including “competitive foods” such as snack foods and sugary beverages sold in vending machines, meet strict nutrition guidelines. Also, after school snack programs will be allowed to provide full meals to underprivileged children and reimbursement rates will increase by 6 cents for lunches served as part of the National School Lunch Program. Although 6 cents seems like a small increase, more than 30.1 million underprivileged children received free or reduced-price lunches in 2008. In other words, schools will now have the resources to help more children and ensure all foods on campuses meet strict nutrition guidelines set forth in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, even for foods sold in vending machines, à la carte lines, and from outside vendors. This will, finally, put the focus back on healthful foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Yes, children will still have their favorite and their not-so-favorite lunch days, but the great news is that children will have access to healthful food. And of course, providing children with well-balanced meals improves learning, socialization, and builds lifelong, nutritious habits.