Questions to ask as debate over federal lunch standards continues

Can you believe it? School lunch is controversial. In this time of political extremes even the hot dog is at risk. The federal government, in an attempt to insure healthy eating for our children, requires schools to serve meals with new and very specific requirements for reduced salt, required whole grains, required quantities of fruits and vegetables, specified calorie levels for each age grouping, and low fat milk. Federal funding of the free and reduced lunches for school districts is dependent on compliance.

Child nutrition staffs at some schools say the requirement is resulting in children throwing the fruit or vegetable in the garbage and reducing the number of students participating in the lunch program. They argue that the new requirements are wasteful, difficult to implement and should be delayed.

Some schools argue that the calorie levels for older students are too low and that the high school athletes leave hungry. (Athletic power Wayzata High School, for one, has opted out of the federal lunch program, but elementary and middle schools in the district will remain under the new federal standards.)

Rep. John Kline of Minnesota is one legislator who has championed the call for a delay.

Supporters of the requirements argue that large producers of school lunch products are behind the call for a delay. The school lunch program is a major market for food producers and the new requirements may take them out of the market, force a change in products and detract from the product’s student desirability.

Do school lunches need to be healthier? Can we affect the eating habits of children? Is the current law effective; and finally what do those who call for a delay offer as the alternate solution? Criticism is easier than problem solving and delaying a solution without specific steps and timelines is not to the betterment of our children’s long-term health.

Critics argue that if the healthy food is being served but not consumed the program is failing. Changing our eating habits is really the problem and that is tough. We like our sugar, salt and fat. Our children like the unhealthy food we like and that’s what we want to change.

We are considered an obese nation with related health problems that challenge our quality of life and the costs of health care. These are major problems that we can’t afford to pass on to our children.

The federal school lunch requirements are an attempt to address that need. A successful effort toward healthier eating in the school lunch room has to also come from the home and the general environment in which our children live. We need a strong partnership between parents, the school lunch room, the government and the industries that produce food for our children.

If a delay is needed the proponents of delay should spell out alternative solutions and a timeline for implementation. The next time we hold hearing in Washington our elected officials should ask the food producers what they will do during a delay to make their product healthier in compliance with the standards.

Ask industry what they will do to make a healthier product more desirable to students and ask for a time line. Ask the leaders of the School Nutrition Association what they will do during the time of the delay to meet the standards. Ask what the association will do during the delay to overcome the challenges and meet the requirements. Ask the association what they will do to enhance the inclusion of the home when moving children toward better nutrition.

Members of Congress also have some questions to answer. Ask them what they will do to further ensure healthy eating habits of children. If additional funding is needed will they provide it? If corporate incentives are needed to improve commercial school lunch products will they support those incentives? If individual components of the law need be improved will they delineate those expected improvements as they call for the delays in implementation to assure a delay isn’t an attempt at elimination of the effort?

Parents and grandparents of students have an extremely important, if not the most important role, in improving the life-long health of our children. Your expectations will greatly determine if the fruits and vegetables go into the stomach or into the garbage.

Perhaps it’s time to engage in the lunch program just as its time to engage in the reading program. Let your children know what you expect and set an example (that may be the really hard part). Let your school know what you expect.

As a final note, families need to think about the new requirements and the requested delay and let your elected officials know what you want for your children.

– An opinion from the ECM Publishers Editorial Board

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