Our National School Lunch Program is in trouble. Tight budgets and little oversight result in schools serving low-cost, often unhealthy foods to students. Historically school nutrition rules enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture requires schools to provide a certain number of foods from particular food groups but guidelines beyond these do not exist. The rules require schools serve at least two servings of fruits and vegetables at every meal, but catsup and high fructose corn syrup laden apple juice satisfy these requirements despite their lack of overall nutrients. Costs often dictate schools meet this requirement by using cheap, canned or processed foods. Some schools participating in the federal food program tailor their menus using commodity foods which are free or very low cost. Beef and bulk processed cheese are added to menus to keep costs under $1.00 a student. Since schools are place where children learn to eat, we can change what we serve to model good eating habits.
With the increased incidence of overweight and obese children and adults in America it is time we make these changes. Offering healthier foods, growing and eating foods from school gardens and experimenting with more health-conscious preparation methods requires effort and support from parents, school administrators and state and federal governments. Districts can participate in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which helps schools buy fresh produce and take advantage of the healthier commodities while purchasing more fresh fruit and vegetables. This may require a financial investment but it absolutely requires district commitment to children, health outcomes and the development of long term healthy habits.