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State of the School Lunch

This regular column – inspired by Chef Ann Cooper’s “State of School Lunch” address – will explore current issues, legislation, and advocacy impacting school lunch.

We’ve all heard the statistics. Over one-third of children in this country are overweight or obese, which will lead to health problems with long-term consequences: shorter life expectancies, decreased productivity, and a massive strain on our already troubled health care system. For many kids, it isn’t about overeating; it’s about eating the wrong kinds of food. These days, malnourished children are more likely to be overweight because they aren’t getting enough of the right kinds of food to eat.

In 2010, President Obama recognized the food and health crisis facing our nation’s children and signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law, creating new nutrition standards for school food and childhood nutrition programs. Focusing on school food change is important because of the depth and breadth of the impact it can have on children’s health. Not only are our children eating over 40 million meals a day at school, children who eat breakfast and lunch at school are consuming more than 50% of their daily calories there, and that’s not counting snacks or food from vending machines.

Changing school food not only improves the meals and snacks our children consume at school, it also helps children develop healthy eating habits they can bring home to their families and carry into adulthood. School cafeterias are classrooms. Kids learn how and what to eat from what is on their lunch trays. For young kids who are cultivating a life-long palette, canned peach slices packed in syrup convey a very different message than a fresh, ripe peach.

In 2013, 30.6 million children ate School Lunch each day. School Breakfast, which has experienced 55.9% increase over the last decade, helps to ensure over 13.1 million children have a healthy start to their school day. Add it all up, and it’s over 7 billion meals over the course of a school year. It’s imperative that we ensure that those meals are nutritious, safe, and delicious for kids who are developing eating habits that will last a lifetime.

In future columns, I look forward to discussing the most significant actions and trends that will impact school food in 2014:

· The FDA ban on trans fat;

· The USDA’s relaxed protein and grain maximums;

· Guidelines for school breakfast and competitive foods;

· Permission to import chicken processed in China;

· The nationwide initiative to upgrade school cafeteria equipment;

· Growing national farm-to-school efforts, and

· Food literacy in schools and bringing back home economics.


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