Editorial: Invest in quality school lunches


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The American school lunch has long been an object of cultural disdain. For many people, the school lunch evokes the image of a hair-netted lunch lady ladling slop onto a plastic tray. The government is working hard to combat that image. In August 2012, new federal guidelines intended to make school lunches more nutritious went into effect.

A recent survey from the University of Iowa Public Policy Center and College of Public Health found that Iowa’s parents have mixed feelings about their kid’s school lunches and the government’s nutritional guidelines.

The survey found that more than half of Iowa’s parents believe that school meals are healthy, and more than half believe that healthy school lunches will improve their child’s health. But parents reported a number of complaints about school food, including small portions, off-site preparation, and generally poor food quality.

“Parents overwhelmingly agree that the school lunch should be composed of fresh, nutritious food,” the study notes, “yet do not believe this need is being met.”

The survey comes after the first completed school year under stricter federal guidelines for school lunches. Under the new rules, meals must be kept below 600 or 650 calories, and schools must offer fruits and vegetables every day. The full slate of lunch regulations is to be phased in fully by the 2014-15 school year.

These changes were adopted in part to reduce the incidence of childhood obesity, a widespread problem all over the country.  In 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of Americans under the age of 18 were overweight or obese.

There is some evidence to suggest that more nutritious school lunches could help reduce childhood obesity.

A 2005 study from University of Chicago found that students who ate school lunches provided through the National School Lunch Program were 2 percentage points more likely to be obese. The study found that children who ate school lunch consumed about 40 to 120 more calories per day than children who brought their lunch from home.

But improving the nutritional value in school lunches shouldn’t be achieved at the expense of quality. If a nutritionally sound lunch is a lunch that children don’t want to eat, then the new regulations could have the counterproductive effect of driving students away from school lunches altogether. A meaningful change to the school-lunch program might require increased funding to insure higher quality food.

The budget of the National School Lunch Program, which effectively subsidizes school lunches at varying rates according to need, was about $11.1 billion in fiscal 2011.

With an increase in funding, school lunches could be made to include more of the high-quality foods parents seem to want.

And a boost in school lunch funding may not be a bad investment, if better nutrition leads to a decline in childhood obesity.

According to a 2009 study published in Obesity Journal, childhood obesity is related to significantly higher health-care costs. Annual health-care costs for obese children were about $320 higher than related costs for children at a normal weight. Nationwide, childhood obesity raised health-care costs by $14.1 billion, more than the entire budget of the school-lunch program.

The government should make a larger investment in school lunches to ensure that they are not only nutritious but also reasonably satisfying.

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