Child Nutrition In The United States
America is the richest country in the world, so why is hunger such a huge problem? Poverty is the number one cause of hunger and with nearly 40 million Americans living below the poverty line, it’s no wonder so many of our neighbors are going without. Over 14% of Americans are “food insecure” and adults are not the only ones skipping meals. Recent studies show about 13 million kids are living below the poverty line and 16 million are living in food insecure households. These families likely don’t eat at every meal or when they do eat, their plates are not filled with well-rounded, nutritious foods. When these kids go off to school, their parents are unable to send a bag lunch with them or give them money for a hot lunch from the cafeteria. Poverty and hunger have been around for a long time so this is not a new problem. In fact, there has been a solution of sorts in place for decades.
The National School Lunch Program was signed into law in 1946 by President Harry S. Truman in an effort to provide free or low cost meals to qualified (low income) students through government subsidies. This program was so successful – both in feeding America’s youth and boosting food prices by passing off surpluses to schools – that it spawned the Child Nutrition Act. This federal law was signed in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson and established the National School Breakfast Program as well as implemented nutrition standards for school meals. Each day these programs serve over 30 million students in 101,000 schools nationwide.
These school meal programs operate at a cost of nearly $9 billion, which sounds like a lot but in reality, that only affords a school about $1 per student per day. You can’t buy anything for a dollar these days, especially a well-rounded, healthy meal. School lunches have deteriorated into a slop of reheated processed junk that has little to no nutritional value. Chef, author and fresh food “activist,” Jamie Oliver started his Food Revolution in England then brought his campaign across the pond in 2010. His goal was to transform the US school lunch menu from serving processed simple carbs and fats to serving fresh meats and veggies. Starting at the elementary school level, he won over reluctant school administrators and students who, as it turns out, would eat healthy foods if they were put in front of them. Jamie marched his way up to high school where students actually chose fresh, healthy foods over processed junk. The real problem faced by the Food Revolution was funding. Although it’s possible to work with local farmers and distributors and get fresh foods at a discount, it simply cannot be done with the current level of funding. But there is hope on the horizon.
Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act
Legislation is in Congress right now that would give schools $4.5 billion over the next 10 years to modify school cafeteria menus by establishing healthier guidelines. Part of the Child Nutrition Act, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act reauthorizes child nutrition programs by authorizing the Secretary of Agriculture to establish nutrition standards. Schools will also be reimbursed more per meal. This bill is currently sitting in the House of Representatives after being unanimously approved by the Senate. First Lady, Michelle Obama, is a major proponent of this legislation since it is a huge part of her Let’s Move campaign which encourages kids to exercise, eat right and be healthier. Mrs. Obama’s goal is to end childhood obesity within one generation. This type of law could help our kids reach that goal. If this bill passes, it could mark the end of the school vending machine era. No longer would kids be able to get a sugary soda or bag of greasy potato chips for lunch. Schools may be forced to remove the standard vending machines. What happens next is up to us.
The Future of Our Kids
Some schools have already voluntarily removed standard vending machines and have seen dramatic results in students’ attention spans and behavior. An option for schools now is the healthy vending machine which offers non-processed, organic snacks and all-natural drinks like milk, juice and water. When kids see what choices are available apart from the usual junk food fare, they will eat better, grow stronger and learn better. Healthy kids turn into healthy adults. Parents can join together to encourage their kids’ schools to remove these snack machines and replace them with a healthier option. Parents can also set an example by eating better themselves and not keeping junk food in the house. Kids pay close attention to what adults do as well as what they say. If schools and parents lead by example, our kids have a bright future.
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