Sloppy Joe’s? Chicken nuggets? Pot pie? If you’re lucky, your local school district lunch will contain a minimal amount of processed foods. If that is the case,you just might have Ann Cooper to thank. Ms. Cooper has created a system called Lunch Box, which is designed to help all school districts replace packaged, heavily-processed foods with local food and food prepared from scratch.
School lunch reform has been growing in popularity over the past decade. When this reform movement began, it was criticized. But no longer. Now that the obesity of America’s children has gained international attention, it is becoming more commonplace to support healthy alternatives in school lunch programs.
With Michelle Obama utilizing the garden at the White House to emphasize local agriculture and expounding upon the healthy diet of her own children, Americans are getting the message that the school lunches matter.
To take steps now to improve quality of the school lunches most children receive is to take care of the present and the future. Since a high percentage of obese children grow up to be obese adults, lawmakers see improved school lunches as a way to decrease medical bills in the future.
Ms. Cooper is not the only reformer focusing on school lunch nutrition, and with her peers has been fighting the establishment for over ten years. Help in the form of money is flowing into school cafeterias from both private agencies and government programs.
As early as October, Congress will take up the Child Nutrition Act, which provides billions to pay for lunch and breakfast for millions of public schoolchildren. But are we getting our money’s worth?
Why take these billions of dollars to purchase highly processed foods that will only add to childhood obesity? Perhaps it is time for an overhaul of the system. The allocated dollar amount per student does not cover the cost of breakfast or lunch, and traditionally the difference has been made up with highly-processed Department of Agriculture commodity food and from the sale of popular items like potato chips, pizza and burritos.
The role of the Department of Agriculture in the school lunch program is a complex one. On the one hand, the Department of Agriculture is asked to feed children nutritious food, while at the same time it helps large agricultural companies sell surplus food, like chicken or beef, which is processed into packaged products like nuggets. This dual role of the USDA works against the health of our nation’s children.
The nutritional requirements in school lunches has not been changed in over fifteen years. Ms. Cooper and other school lunch reform movement leaders are busy teaching school districts how they can save money by using locally- grown food. Others are lobbying for healthier standards to be imposed upon all public school cafeterias. And the school cafeteria workers themselves, dedicated professionals with the best interest of children at heart, are also joining in the struggle to win the right to serve healthy food to all public school children.
Individual school districts and parents do have power and influence. Districts and families are encouraged to continue to voice their concern about unhealthy school lunches. Once enough federal lawmakers see that healthy lunches cooked from scratch with locally grown foods can be cheaper than fat-laden, highly-processed items, effective legislation can be passed.
It seems more and more people are concerned about unhealthy school lunches, and the timing seems right for a change. Many feel that momentum is building toward a better future for the healthy school lunches for all public school children.