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Tater Tots Aren't Vegetables: Why Do We Feed Our Kids Crap?

School lunches are a big part of many children's diets, yet the system is under-financed and USDA guidelines are warped. So what will we do about it?

After eating bagel dogs, tater tots and gloppy cheese sandwiches every day for a year, the brave teacher known as Mrs. Q shared what she learned on her blog Fed Up With Lunch: "The quality of school lunches has declined" since she was a kid and "the USDA guidelines are warped."

Why are French fries and tater tots counted as vegetables, fruit jello cups and frozen juice bars counted as fruit, and so many grains required that schools have to serve combinations like rice with bread? Mrs. Q concludes after her year of school lunches that "our nation's school lunch program is broken" and what we need is more than just money for better food -- fresh food. As she puts it, "We must invest in our 'lunch ladies' and teach them how to cook properly" -- not just reheat food as they do now. Fixing school lunch will take more than just money, but without money, schools can't afford the food, training, labor, equipment and supplies needed to revamp their lunch programs.

Fortunately, Congress is in the process of re-authorizing school lunch. Will they be able to fix it? This month, Rep. George Miller, chair of the House Education and Labor committee, teamed with other members of Congress and Food Network's Rachael Ray to unveil his child nutrition bill, a bill reauthorizing the school lunch program, WIC (a nutrition program for low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women and children under five), and other child nutrition programs. As was expected, his bill, giving child nutrition an additional $8 billion over 10 years, was far more generous than the corresponding Senate bill, which only gave child nutrition $4.5 billion. Neither, however, supplied the full $10 billion requested by Barack Obama, and both fell far short of the amount requested by child nutrition advocates.

The bills were not without merit. They do a fantastic job increasing the number of hungry children who will be eligible for free lunches by calling for "direct certification" -- automatically enrolling children in the lunch program if they are already enrolled in other programs for low-income Americans (like Medicaid, SCHIP or food stamps) -- and universal free lunches in high poverty areas. And it makes all the sense in the world that a school spending a large amount of money on paperwork to enroll the majority of its students in the lunch program could better spend its precious dollars by skipping the paperwork entirely and instead feeding all of the children, whether they qualify for free lunch or not. (This also has the effect of removing the stigma of taking a federal handout, so that no child will go hungry because it isn't cool to eat a free lunch in front of wealthier, paying peers.) Furthermore, by reducing the paperwork burden of schools, the bill aims to shift schools' costs away from administration, freeing up money to spend on healthy food or feeding more children.

And yet, what is the benefit of feeding more children the same poor quality, unhealthy food the lunch program receives widespread criticism for serving? The School Nutrition Association, which receives funding from many of the corporations that sell unhealthy foods to schools for their lunches, has called for adding 35 cents to the "reimbursement rate" (the amount schools receive per free lunch served) just to make up for the amount of money schools are losing by serving lunches. Reformers like Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper say the government should add a dollar to the reimbursement rate. The House and Senate bills each provide a meager 6 cents. The government cares enough to keep children from starving, but not enough to provide them with nutritious meals.

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