Since many people are either back in school this week (like yours truly) or will be heading that way shortly I wanted to talk about student lunches. Each person needs to eat and students need their brain-food to realize their learning potential. The U.S. National school lunch program provides close to 32 Million students with lunches each day. For some lower income students in grades K-12 this could be their only meal of the day. The free lunch program ensures that lower income students are provided a lunch and sometimes other meals while they are at school. When I was growing up in Northern Michigan I was one of those kids that received free lunch along with my two brothers and my sister. My mom and step-dad always seemed to struggle with money, however, my siblings and I never went hungry and that is something I am very thankful for, even if I wasn’t at the time (Silly kids don’t even know what’s good for ‘em) I remember being made fun of by some of my classmates because I received free lunch. Everyone knows why students received free lunch. It is because your parents meet the financial requirements of a low-income household. While I do not know those requirements, I am sure that many struggling parents with K-12 children do. For me, the school lunch was the meal I looked forward to the most every weekday.
That free lunch I looked forward to was also the most processed meal I ate everyday and full of sodium and many other not so good ingredients. The USDA procures meat for schools by allowing companies to bid on the contracts. That means, usually, the lowest bidder wins and I firmly believe you get what you pay for. In the past thousands of tons of chicken was supplied by the USDA from old birds that might otherwise go towards things such as pet food, compost, or McDonald’s chicken nuggets. To be fair, I made up the McDonalds part. Most schools can only afford to serve food that is highly processed. These processed foods have been stripped of many nutrients and antioxidants. Which are better; a chicken breast or chicken nuggets. A bagged salad or fresh chopped up head up lettuce with carrots? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. In addition to the quality of the food, the type of food served is often abundant in empty carbohydrates and other sugars, which often have little nutritional value. A little square of pre-packaged cheese pizza anyone? Pop it in the microwave and lunch is served! If students do get a serving of fruit it is usually a very tiny cup of processed fruit cocktail. Here is a little factoid for you: It costs approximately $6,000 to feed a child lunch during their K-12 education. Here is another factoid: It costs our health care system around $175,000 per adult, for illness related to poor childhood nutrition. Maybe this is why certain people think it is bad to have universal healthcare? Because doing so would cost so much money! However, if we would invest more in our children’s future then perhaps those unhealthy adults with diabetes, heart disease, and obesity would not be unhealthy but rather healthy working and contributing members of society. It is unfortunate the shortsightedness that creates these problems which, seems to me, could be prevented in the first place.
Of course when school districts get $2.68 for every meal served to a child who qualifies for free lunch it is difficult to buy healthy, organic, unprocessed foods. How is the parent of a child who receives free lunch supposed to voice concern about the quality of their school’s food when they are relieved their child get’s anything at all? They would sound like a complainer, like they aren’t grateful. But shouldn’t they complain if their child is receiving the equivalent of a fast food meal every day, even if it is free?! Kids may not know the difference but parents and communities should. We should stop trying to do the cheapest possible thing all the time. Quality food may cost more, however, the short and long term benefits of being healthy for outweigh the upfront monetary costs and provide a much greater value to our society as a whole.
So if you are fortunate enough to be able to provide for your children then give them a piece of fruit with their lunch. Make them a sandwich with avocado and tomato or turkey and lettuce. Provide them a reusable water bottle to fill up with water instead of soda or other sugary juices with high fructose corn syrup. Make some oatmeal for them with raisons and cinnamon for breakfast instead of frosted flakes, which are made from GMO corn.
As my position in life changes I will grow from donating organic produce to the food bank each week to supporting food activist groups that lobby and promote positive change in the food industry. I am slowly working to get the word out and to help make a positive change in our world. But first, I need to go eat my lunch.