Daniel Brindis: A nudge in the right direction

If you blinked, you might have missed Sen. Blanche Lincoln change what your child likely eats for lunch at school. Recently, in the wake of Elena Kagan’s confirmation, the Senate quickly and unanimously passed Lincoln’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

After years of negotiations and a recent push from Michelle Obama, the proposal received 30 seconds of floor time, which was more than enough for it to pass without any objection. The Act will reauthorize the federal school lunch program before the Sept. 30 deadline, and it will also take initial steps to make school lunches healthier, safer, and more accessible.

Although it receives a splinter of the attention given to the two wars, healthcare, and the economy, the school lunch program has a huge impact on America. More than half of U.S. children are eligible for federal school lunches, and the purchasing power impacts the way our food is grown and consumed. Within schools this means that the lunches served under the school lunch program are served to everybody. In a cafeteria there is no “poor” section or “privileged” section – it is the same food, same kitchen (that is, when there is a kitchen on premises). Unless you pack your son or daughter’s lunch, this proposal mandates what your children are eating.

Studies show that kids’ ability to learn and the nutritional value of the food they eat goes hand in hand. You don’t have to read the academic literature about this – ask your local teacher what it’s like to teach a class that just consumed french fries and surplus beef served in gobs of undistinguishable “brown sauce.”

Besides encumbering attention spans, the current school lunch system presents a serious problem: obesity. Children currently enrolled in the federal school lunch program are more likely to be obese than children who are not enrolled. Overall, 30 percent of American children are obese.

We are all stakeholders in this crisis. Obesity is a major factor in our ballooning healthcare costs because increased diabetes and cardiac disease are drains on Medicare, Medicaid and private plans. Obesity not only impacts our pocketbooks, but it also presents a national security concern – almost one third of young adults 17-24 years old are too obese to serve in the military. This is a problem that we need to address now. Each year we don’t address obesity, we neglect another class of young Americans.

Doing anything in the Senate these days is no small feat considering the fierce political climate, the bottlenecked Senate calendar, and the 60-plus vote mentality. The proposal passed mainly because the $4.6 billion bill was completely paid for by taking away money from other programs. Almost half of the funding comes from food stamps (the SNAP program).

The proposal is a step in the right direction, but the new changes are slight. It adds six cents per meal, per child (now a pittance $2.38 per meal). There is also some language that strengthens food safety, mandates wellness education, and sets guidelines for all food sold during school hours (a la carte and vending). The proposal provides funding for school gardens, which is important because they provide physical activity, food, and wellness education simultaneously.

The proposal does not go far enough though. We are missing an opportunity for real solutions to our broken food system.

Next month, the House will soon address the school lunch issue. Their proposal is slightly more ambitious and provides more resources – $8 billion and more meals to more children. Still, this proposal’s increase (also 6 cents) is still nowhere near the additional $1-$2 more that nutrition experts estimate is necessary to bring school lunch standards up to par.

At the end of the day, neither proposal addresses other fundamental issues with school lunches. Nutritional standards are not enforced and in most schools, real fruits and vegetables are a distant reality.

Every year we delay in aggressively addressing school lunches, we neglect another class of 5 million children who are beholden to the same unhealthy food. Our students are not learning how to eat and enjoy healthy food. Instead they have been fed food influenced heavily by a fast food culture. Are chicken nuggets and French fries really the model of nutrition we want our children to follow? We cannot afford to wait another five years to make important changes in children’s nutrition. The young are where our nation’s obesity crisis begins – and in our schools we need to make nutrition a lesson for life.

Daniel Brindis is the director of policy for Earth Day Network. Earth Day Network’s Green Schools initiatives include reforming school lunches in order to promote local and sustainable agriculture, fight obesity, and develop students’ understanding of where their food comes from and their place in the eco-system.

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