Over 31 million children receive lunch through the National School Lunch Program. In New York City alone, public school kitchens serve 860,000 meals each day and service 1.1 million kids. School food is a critical piece in keeping children fed and alert throughout the school day, but it also provides a key opportunity to get children eating healthy. The federal government’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorizes funding and sets policy for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s core child nutrition program. Under this legislation, the USDA has proposed nutrition guidelines to improve school lunches and breakfasts by including more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat milk, as well as cooking with less salt and fat. Despite support from tens of thousands of parents and organizations, some members of Congress are trying to stop these guidelines from being finalized.
According to the most recent estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, over 20 percent of America’s children live in poverty. In New York City, the number of children living in poverty ranges from 25 to 33 percent depending on age group. Overall, 76% of elementary and middle school children in NYC receive free lunch and in some neighborhoods that number is much higher. (In the South Bronx, almost 95% of elementary and middle school children receive free lunch). For many of these children, school meals provide one of the few available opportunities for a nutritious meal. The food deserts in which many of these children live only compound the problem by providing few options to access healthy, affordable food. By insuring that school food follows common-sense nutrition guidelines, these children can eat healthy twice a day, which will lower risk factors associated with childhood obesity. Other national efforts to fight childhood obesity, including the Partnership for a Healthier America’s recent initiative to bring healthy, affordable food to 10 million people over the next five years, are crucial. However, the USDA guidelines are a critical weapon in the fight to combat childhood obesity in high need, vulnerable communities and they must be protected.
The House of Representatives has already included a rider on its agriculture spending bill to urge USDA to start over and propose a new set of school meal standards. The Senate will vote on its own agriculture appropriations bill on September 7th. To keep healthy school lunches, please send an email to both of your Senators asking them to support USDA’s efforts to improve school meals. Go to https://secure2.convio.net/cspi/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=1251 and take action!