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The Politics Behind the School Lunch

The Politics Behind the School Lunch

As America continues to battle childhood obesity through reforming the school lunch, the debate on how to most effecitvely do so has become political and grown much larger than simply reducing childhood obesity rates.

Every five years, the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry must meet to reauthorize and update school meal rules, and that time is now. In the beginning of May, the committee convened and began the process, revealing the stark politic debate that currently exists around school lunch options.

School lunch saw the biggest changes to its program in fifteen years after the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) was signed into law in 2010 and went into effect in 2012. The law offers financial incentives of six cents reimbursement per meal to school districts that are certified to be in compliance with the required meal patterns, according to the USDA

During implementation, the USDA gave schools a timeline, available here, to make aware nutrition standards for the designed National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. These standards included immediately offering fruit daily and vegetable subgroups weekly, providing only fat-free or low-fat unflavored milk immediately, and providing whole-grain rich grains only by the 2014-2015 school year.

Congress' first meeting to discuss children's nutrition revealed that since this implementation, though "the number of low income students eating government funded meals has increased under the HHFKA rules, the number of wealthier students to pay for their lunch has declined," according to

Some middle-class students have chosen to bring school lunches from home for more tastier alternatives, and some simply can't afford the increased lunch prices that have stemmed from the new, healthier standards.

One of the biggest opponent's to keeping the HHFKA standards is the School Nutrition Association, which wants to offer "flexibility" to schools instead of forcing them to adhere to rigid standards. According to the SNA position paper for 2015, it wants individual School Food Authorities (SFA) to be able to "decide whether students are required to take a fruit or vegetable as part of a reimbursable meal," require only half of grains offered to be whole grain rich, and reduce sodium level reductions to a lower target level. 

The SNA claims by doing this in addition to increasing per meal reimbursement by 35 cents, schools will be provided with "flexibility to maximize efficiency and ease administrative burdens and "restore financial sustainability of meal programs, which operate independent of school district budgets."

On the other hand, critics of the SNA's motives believe the association has questionable motives that cater to the middle class as well as SNA's big food sponsors that produce the less healthy alternatives that schools serve a la carte.

"[L]ow income students (who qualify for free or reduced price school meals) are happy enough to eat the healthier food. The problem is those...middle class kids, the ones with options, like bringing a bag lunch of questionable nutritional value, or going off campus for lunch. When they bail on eating school meals, the cafeteria may lose money," the to article said.

This defines the basis of the debate over school lunch options: funding issues. As fewer middle school students choose to bring food from home, less students that can afford to buy school lunch are, and instead cafeterias see an increase in distributing free lunch.

"SNA members ...should not have to cater to junk-loving kids in order to cover meal program costs, or pretend that gutting nutrition standards is just asking for 'flexibility.' School districts shouldn’t have to make up the cafeteria shortfall out of their general fund, or be forced to choose between paying for students’ nutritional needs and paying for their academic needs," the article said.

Additionally, National Journal contributor Jerry Hagstrom suggests that perhaps "advocates for healthier eating such as the American Heart Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest could find common ground with the School Nutrition Association on a program to teach middle-class parents and children that their food choices matter."

Any alternative, to critics of the SNA, seems better than simply providing flexibility and ignoring the entire purpose of having nutrition standards in the first place, which is to fight against childhood obesity and therefore give children a better future through well-balanced school lunches. 

Read the full article here and comment below.

Article by Nicole Gorman, Education World Contributor


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