Education / Healthcare / Politics

School Lunches: Healthy But Hungry

The battle over school lunches is on again. On May 29, 2014, the House Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal year 2015 agriculture spending bill that included a waiver to allow schools that are floundering under rigorous school lunch program standards one year to play catch up. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 imposed demanding requirements for servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and placed limits on the sodium, fat, and calorie content of school lunches. The combination of these restrictive standards and insufficient funding has led to schools serving skimpy lunches kids do not want to eat. The fundamental idea of providing healthier foods for our nation’s children is a great one, and the goal of eliminating childhood obesity is essential; but a program that is unaffordable, undesirable, and inefficient will not work.

The school lunch program as it stands is feeding more food to schools’ dumpsters than to the children who need it. Students are frustrated and none to happy with the results of the program standards. Across the country they have organized boycotts and strikes and turned to social media, utilizing the hashtag #ThanksMichelle on twitter, posting pictures of the meager lunches they are provided, and uploading videos to YouTube.

Although additional grants are available, primarily low-income schools are having trouble funding the program with the provided reimbursements. A study of 15 schools in Utah in 2013 found that school districts spend $5.4 million on the extra produce required to meet the program standards—though $3.8 million of that produce is being tossed in the trash. Hundreds of schools have opted out of the program because they can afford it; low-income schools are the ones being forced to comply because they need the reimbursements provided by the National School Lunch Program. Some schools can afford to comply with standards by providing robust salad bars and high quality foods as broadcast in success stories, but the best other schools can do is mystery meat on a soggy bun. Many schools have reportedly had to transfer money from teaching budgets to cover program costs. It is outrageous that schools have to utilize the scarce funds they have to educate students on an unaffordable and poorly received lunch program.

Every school is different and a successful program must encourage individualization, not standardization, to be more feasible. School meal programs need flexibility, especially in initial implementation, to plan healthy menus that appeal to their unique students. An effective program should have included options and worked with food industry suppliers so that a school could tailor its program to be more workable, instead of the sudden switch we saw to a program with hardline standards. This would have a profound effect on how well received the program is to the kids it is targeting.

Program advocates cite success in lowering childhood obesity, yet experts at the CDC advise caution in the interpretation of released statistics due to a higher-than-average baseline from 2003. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act set out to decrease childhood obesity and provide nutritious foods to kids who cannot afford them. However, the program cannot yield success with schools full of hungry, disgusted kids and dumpsters full of wasted food. Last year, more than one million children stopped eating the program lunches and starting packing lunch from home. This has led to even more wasted food and schools that already could not afford the program hemorrhaging money.

Last Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee approved a waiver for schools to opt out of the nutritional guidelines if they are losing money from the program. This waiver will head to the house in the coming weeks for a vote. Although its passage will provide some much needed relief for schools operating at a net loss, an overhaul of the program is needed to ensure its success for the improved health of our nation’s children.