The Problem with Your Child's School Lunch

Paying the Tab

It's unfair to place all the blame on the schools, especially in these budget-strapped times where lunch programs are under pressure to break even. As Mrs. Obama told a national meeting of school-nutrition professionals back in the spring: "If you asked the average person to do what you do every day, and that is to prepare a meal for hundreds of hungry kids for just $2.68 a child -- with only $1 to $1.25 of that money going to the food itself -- they would look at you like you were crazy. That's sad, but that's less than what many folks spend on a cup of coffee in the morning." When districts do want to make changes, even what seem like small tweaks start to add up; switching to 100 percent whole-wheat bread (which contains more protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals than white bread) costs Seattle Public Schools an extra $20,000 each year.

Both Dr. Nestle and Dr. Poppendieck recommend making school lunches free to all students. Doing so, they argue, will allow schools to put money spent on administering the current tiered system into improving the actual meals. With less pressure to lure paying students into the lunch line, food-service departments could concentrate on healthier foods.

But many of those sweeping changes aren't in the cards yet. In fact, President Obama's plan to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act has been scaled back to call for only six additional cents per meal. Although the funding increase is not enough to ensure that every American child will eat like the students in St. Paul, experts agree that the attention school lunches are getting in the media and the halls of Washington, D.C., should make it easier for parents to change their communities' school lunches.

What should those changes be? Margo Wootan, the nutrition-policy expert at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), along with other advocates, says the first priority should be to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables offered at every meal. They would also like school-nutrition services to set maximum calorie targets rather than minimums -- a practice that was started when the goal was to fight malnutrition. Switching to whole grains and low- or nonfat milk, getting rid of products that contain trans fat, and limiting sodium are the other goals rounding out their wish list.

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