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It's time to fix school lunches

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In 1946, when President Truman signed the School Lunch Act, he said, “In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children, or more prosperous than its farmers.” If that was a statement of purpose rather than merely a rhetorical flourish, then the School Lunch Act has failed.

Today in America we have steadily rising rates of childhood obesity, and if you were born after 2000, you have a startling one-in-three chance of developing early-onset diabetes. Meanwhile America now has more prisoners than farmers, and among those few remaining farmers the average age is 57.1 and rising. The equation becomes quite simple to understand: No farmers equals no food.

In an effort to raise awareness and rally support behind changes to the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, Slow Food USA has created the Time for Lunch campaign. This campaign is calling on Congress to provide the resources schools need to serve real food for lunch. Those involved in making the day-to-day dietary decisions for our children do not have the adequate resources to provide healthy, nutritious, and yes, tasty food for our kids. This must change. It’s time to invest in children’s health, protect against food that puts children at risk and teach children healthy habits that will last through life.

All the talk in Washington right now is on health care reform, and that’s a good thing. But no matter what solutions they craft to meet America’s health care needs, their system will be bankrupted by skyrocketing rates of preventable illnesses that began when we started using our schools as a dumping ground for agribusiness surplus and as a proving ground for corporate marketing to our children. With the red herring of providing the “freedom to choose,” the conglomerates who peddle edible food-like substances have weaseled their way into what is, for many children, the most important (indeed sometimes only) meal of the day: lunch. They tell us the kids should be allowed to choose between a salad and a Twinkie, milk and Coke. And schools fall for this because their resources are constantly being cut, and the junk food pushers offer a cheap and easy way out.

Under the National School Lunch Program, the USDA reimburses schools for every meal served: $2.57 for a free lunch, $2.17 for a reduced-price lunch and 24 cents for a paid lunch. Since these reimbursements must also pay for labor, equipment and overhead costs, schools are left with only $1.00 to spend on food. How can schools be expected to feed our children and protect their health with only a dollar a day? It’s time to build a strong foundation for our children’s health by raising the reimbursement rate to $3.57.

That amounts to an increase of $5.4 billion over an academic year. Serious money to be sure, but when obesity-related healthcare costs are $147 billion annually, it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with an extra buck a day for our children.

Senator Harkin and Congresswoman Woolsey are to be commended for their efforts in this area. Their Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009 will put a stop to food companies profiting from selling obesity to our kids. We need more though. We must fund grants for Farm to School programs and school gardens, simultaneously improving local economies, supporting local farms, and raising our children’s awareness of where food comes from and why it’s important.

We can even create jobs by training unemployed and underemployed Americans to be the teachers, farmers, cooks and administrators that our school cafeterias need. President Obama has called for an end to childhood hunger by 2015; let’s answer that call by putting Americans to work building and working in school kitchens nationwide.

This Labor Day you can help by joining or organizing an Eat-In, a National Day of Action being coordinated in communities all over the US. Details are at www.SlowFoodUSA.org/timeforlunch.

 
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