Child Obesity and School Nutrition – Part I

When you think about school lunches, your mind probably wanders back to elementary school when a square piece of pizza and a scoop of canned corn on a plastic tray seemed like fine dining. While certainly not so appetizing today, nearly everyone has a fond, or not so fond, memory of school lunches, especially in grade school.

What you might find surprising, is school lunches and breakfasts play a much larger role in kids’ lives than in the past.  School meals have a major impact on both the childhood obesity and food insecurity that we are seeing.

In the U.S. an astounding 30 million kids eat a school-provided meal every day, during the school year with 20 million of these kids receiving free or reduced-cost meals.

Can you imagine what it would do to kids’ health if schools chose to serve nothing but sugary, salty, and over-processed foods for breakfast and lunch? Now imagine what it would do to kids’ health if schools chose to serve nothing but healthy, seasonal, whole foods for breakfast and lunch?

You don’t have to be a registered dietician to understand the importance of making that shift.

To see how school meals have changed over the years, both for the better and for the worse, let’s look at the big picture:

  1. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was signed into law in 1946 after President Harry Truman called the program a “measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children and to encourage domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities”.
  • The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 made it much easier for schools to provide milk to students, it set up a school breakfast program, and it centralized school meal programs across the country so that different school districts would have the same funding and nutritional requirements as others.
  • In the 1980s, the Food Research and Action Center and the Department of Agriculture attempted to make changes to the school meal program’s nutritional standards.  This included classifying ketchup as a vegetable and allowing peanuts to count as meat. These changes lasted for 15 days until President Ronald Reagan was forced to retract them after intense public outcry.
  • In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama, after being championed by first lady Michelle Obama. This act provided federal funding for child nutrition programs and increased access to healthy foods in low-income areas. School districts that participate in the NSLP are now required to serve more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products.

Today, kids are getting healthier meals at school which is helping students and families, especially in low-income areas.