A recent Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) study shows that more students this year than last are eating breakfast in schools. Research has found that eating breakfast improves children’s overall nutrition and builds stronger learners. While this type of inquiry is important, we don’t need new research to tell us that eating the right stuff at the right time increases our ability to learn and grow. That’s a given, and I firmly believe that all kids should be provided proper nutrition.
And yet the School Nutrition Association (SNA), once a noble group of people helping to increase the quality of school nutrition programs, seems to think otherwise. This group, which claims to “see that all children have access to healthful school meals and nutrition education” has blatantly opposed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA), a piece of legislation designed to make much needed improvements to our National School Lunch Program. Marion Nestle, an outspoken critic of SNA, compiled this update of SNA’s shenanigans, in which, among other things, she describes SNA’s latest position paper on school lunches. Their vision for the HHFKA, which will be reauthorized this year, is one that will allow more junk food into schools and reduce criteria for fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. How in the world does that fulfill their mission of giving children better access to more healthful school meals?
SNA, now in the pocket of Big Food manufacturers, is pushing a more corporate agenda of selling low-cost food at a high cost to our health. A quick look at the SNA website shows that they receive funding from the likes of Pepsico, Conagra Foodservice, and Tyson. Those and other Big Food companies are now clamoring for federal tax dollars (our tax dollars) to put more junk food into our schools. Little wonder that Marion Nestle calls them “the defenders of junk food”
How can SNA put dollars over lives? By lobbying for lax School Lunch Program standards and the resulting infusion of over-processed—and sugar-, salt-, and fat laden— “food” into our schools,they are setting our children up to fight lifelong battles with obesity, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses.
The National School Lunch Program is designed to serve children in need, and there are plenty of these children in the U.S. Despite economic recent growth, the income gap is widening and many families struggle to keep food on the table. One in six Americans is “food insecure.” For many kids, school is the only place for a guaranteed meal. And those meals should be healthy!
Why are school meals so important? Here’s some disturbing math. Currently the average American family spends about 6% of their annual income on food at home and about 10% on all food. (On a related note, we also spend about 18% of our annual income on health care.) USDA estimates that feeding a family of four a healthy diet works out to be $10,000-$16,000 a year. To meet that price on 10% of income, a family would need to make roughly $100,000-$160,000. The median family income in the U.S is about $53,000. And we can assume that some of this gap is being filled by high-calorie, low-nutrient, processed foods that are often the only items available in the “food deserts” of our country.
We need to do everything we can to get corporate pocketbooks disconnected from our school lunch and breakfast programs. Our future as a healthy and successful nation depends on our choices today. In 1982 when I ran for congress I ended my speeches with a statement that is even more true today—The future of our country begins in kindergarten as does the health of our nation.