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Are School Lunches Setting Kids Up for Obesity and Poor Nutrition?

The Obamas are taking on childhood obesity by tackling problems with the National School Lunch Program. But will their fixes be enough?

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In other words, if the government recommends choosing lean meats, the USDA should actually offer schools lean meats. They agree with Vilsack's call for increased grant money for kitchen upgrades, but they add that the upgrades should specifically focus on equipping kitchens to store and prepare fruits and vegetables (like refrigeration space, knives and cutting boards).

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, Congress is currently considering the future of the "reimbursement rate" -- the amount the government reimburses schools for each child who eats school breakfast or lunch. The funds come from the federal government because the National School Lunch Program is a federal program. The government reimburses schools the most for students who qualify for free lunch (students whose parents make 135 percent of the federal poverty rate or less), slightly less for students who qualify for reduced cost lunch (students whose parents make 135 to 185 percent of the federal poverty rate), and less still for students who buy the school lunch. Unless a school district receives additional money from the state (as some do), the federal reimbursement rate determines how much the schools can spend on each lunch.

Currently, the government spends $2.68 for each child who qualifies for free lunch, totaling $8.7 billion for 5.1 billion lunches served in 2007. President Obama previously proposed spending an extra $1 billion on school lunches, but his 2011 budget splits the money between the school lunch program and another program. Because some of the 5.1 billion lunches are served to children who pay for their lunch, it's uncertain how far Obama's budgeted $1 billion would go to increase the reimbursement rate.

The School Nutrition Association, a group that receives funding from some of the same corporations that sell processed foods to schools, wants an extra 35 cents per lunch. Others, like Slow Food and "Renegade Lunch Lady" Ann Cooper, say we need to provide schools with an extra dollar per meal. A House Democratic aide noted that the $1 billion commitment from Obama is a significant and historic increase in funding relative to the total budget of the child nutrition programs (projected at $18.4 billion for the 2011 fiscal year). According to the aide, Congress is following a "PAYGO" (pay-as-you-go) budget strategy, which was signed into law by the president on February 12, 2010 so they will be unable to allocate more resources to school lunch unless they can find another area of the budget they can cut to offset that investment.

President Obama and the First Lady have demonstrated their commitment, however, to taking action and making an investment to improve children's health and preventing obesity. Congress and the administration are also looking for ways to use our existing resources more efficiently, such as by helping schools reduce administrative costs for school lunch so that as much money as possible can go to buying and preparing healthy food.

With extra money to spend on each meal, schools can purchase higher quality foods. Junk food often provides calories cheaper than healthy food and schools are required to serve at least a minimum number of calories. Thus, choosing fried, fatty or sugary foods allows them to meet their calorie minimum for a lower price. Perhaps that's why so few schools meet the USDA's nutrition standards. Healthy foods also often require more preparation, which means skilled labor or equipment. An increase in the reimbursement rate (in addition to equipment grants) could help schools afford this. Also, with the reimbursement rate at $2.68, each lunch served adds so little to schools' overheads that they must serve as many meals as possible. Thus, they often opt for kid-friendly meals like corn dogs, tater tots, or other unhealthy fast foods. If they weren't so pressured to sell as many meals as possible, they would have more room to offer healthy choices even if it meant a decline in sales.

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