School Lunch Programs Matter: Why Congress Scaling Back Nutrition is a Bad Idea

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School lunch programs are a growing issue in the U.S. where we’re constantly toeing the line between obesity and malnourishment. No matter how many Pop-Tarts you feed a child, they'll never get the nutrition they need to thrive.

Many of our kids depend on school lunch programs for the majority of their calories, during the school year, especially for those families that have trouble putting food on the table day-in and day-out. And the school lunch program has long been an atrocious excuse for nutrition until 2012 when First Lady Michelle Obama championed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act to amp up our school nutrition. It was the first change to school nutrition in 15 years. But now the bill, applauded by school health advocates across the nation, will be scaled back.

The new spending bill unveiled last week will halt new limits on sodium intake as well as allowing states to waive the whole grains standards. The bill did have some negative consequences that can’t be ignored. For example, the bill was costly for poor underprivileged communities and many kids ended up throwing out their vegetables. But with childhood obesity still on the rise and along with it, the chronic health conditions it causes, watering down health standards hardly seems prudent.

Changes in school nutrition can’t be done overnight. So throwing out standards immediately is a bad idea. A better idea would be to instruct school cafeterias on how to prepare healthy meals in a way kids can enjoy. This, along with cutting back on costly processed foods, would save money on food wasted. Additionally, educating kids about the benefits of what they’re eating is another tool. Teachers should also lead by example--if they’re eating processed junk, how can they expect their students not to eat it as well?

Research is consistently showing that childhood nutrition can play a huge role in our health later in life. A recent report at the University of Waterloo and Cornell University found strong economic incentives in investing in childhood nutrition early on. Children who are undernourished early on end up with less education than their peers, earning less income, and having more health problems.

"The returns on investments in nutrition have high benefit-cost ratios, especially in countries with higher income levels and a growing economy," Professor Susan Horton, of the School of Public Health and Health Systems and the Department of Economics at Waterloo said to Medical News Today.

Getting kids to eat healthy isn’t easy when they didn’t start out that way, but it doesn’t mean it’s not important. Their futures depend on eating healthy now. Healthy eating when you’re young not only creates good habits, it also helps kids learn. And childhood obesity is an issue that will impact our economy in terms of healthcare costs for years to come. It’s worth dealing with the issue head on.

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Image: U.S. Department of Agriculture

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