The New School Lunch

Mar 25, 2011

Last December, President Obama signed into law the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, ushering in a new era for the national student lunch program. The $4.5 billion bill includes provisions designed to help schools increase the nutritional value of student meals. But some schools have been working to improve school lunches for years.

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By Douglas Fehlen

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Healthier Options Must Be Tasty

At many schools across the country, mystery meats and other processed foods have been the defining feature on students' lunch trays. Conventional wisdom among many officials has been that while better nutrition should be a priority, exorbitant costs accompanying healthier food options make providing them difficult on a large scale.

But in New York City, the nation's largest school district is doing exactly that, serving 860,000 healthy meals at a cost of about one dollar per tray. The city's school lunch program was radically revamped about seven years ago to provide more nutritious foods to students. Since then, there have been more fresh fruits and vegetables as well as whole-grain foods. Just as significantly, NYC schools serve no fried foods or items with trans fats or artificial ingredients.

Kids, of course, can be picky; nutritional value becomes moot if food tastes so bad that kids won't eat it. Recent efforts to provide healthier options in Chicago Public Schools, for example, have in part been undermined by the fact that fewer students are eating lunches. Over a three-month period, the percentage of students eating school meals dropped by five percent, causing the system to bring back some of the processed options favored among students.

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National Focus on School Lunches

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 brings greater focus and resources to school lunch improvement programs. The president views the legislation as an important element in confronting childhood obesity, a problem that Michelle Obama has joined him in addressing. The first lady has advocated for nutrition and wellness by promoting the White House vegetable garden and starting Let's Move!, a campaign that encourages young people to be more active.

New efforts to improve the health of American schoolchildren through school lunch programs will join many already existing initiatives. Among these is the Farm to School program, which connects local food producers and K-12 schools. The goal is to increase the number of fresh food options for students and provide programming that helps them understand the importance of good nutrition.

Other nonprofits and businesses are getting into the act of supporting healthier school lunches, too. Slow Food USA is working to secure additional funding for school food programs. Whole Foods last year launched a 'school food revolution' initiative designed to improve programs. And the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has pledged to provide about $10 million for school food programs. The ultimate goal of all of these efforts: To improve the health of American schoolchildren, one lunch tray at a time.

Do you have have a lot of concern for the health and education of kids? Learn about five college majors that may be right for you.

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