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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Celebrating School Lunch

(Updated 10/2013)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, just over 20 percent of households with children under 18 experienced food insecurity in 2011. This means that at some point during the year, the household had difficulty providing enough food for all its members due to a lack of resources.

Many of these households were able to shield children from the effects of food insecurity -- in just over 10 percent, it was only the adults in the household that suffered. But that still means that in 10 percent of households, there were children (and adults) going hungry.

Many argue that we as a nation have a moral imperative to ensure that children have enough to eat. But if emotion alone doesn't convince you, consider that hunger has an impact on the behavior, emotions and academics of children. Children who experience hunger (PDF) have lower test scores, are more likely to have repeated a grade and are more likely to receive special education services than their peers. They are also more likely to be hyperactive and absent or tardy, as well as have behavioral and attention problems.

Facts like this underscore the importance of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which we celebrate during National School Lunch Week. NSLP is a federally assisted meal program that operates in over 100,000 public and nonprofit schools and residential child-care facilities, providing nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children. In fiscal year 2011, it provided lunch to an average of 31.8 million children each school day. Fifty-eight percent of the lunches served were free and an additional eight percent were provided at reduced price to low-income students. NSLP plays a crucial role in the nutrition of many students in our country.

Higher Standards for School Lunches

We have all heard the discouraging statistics regarding the childhood obesity rate, which has tripled over the past 30 years. One in five American children is obese, which increases their risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

To help combat obesity, as well as to improve student health in other ways, this year children are seeing new nutrition standards implemented in their school lunches. These standards were developed based on the latest research in nutrition science. They ensure students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day; increase offerings of whole grain-rich foods; offer only fat-free or low-fat milk; limit calories allowed in each meal; and increase focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium in meals.

Of course, not everyone is happy about these changes. As The New York Times recently reported, students from Pittsburgh to western Kansas are protesting, displeased with both the smaller portion sizes of foods they like (such as pizza and French Fries) and the increased cost that those who do not qualify for free or reduced price lunch must pay. Students complain that they are hungry, which may be because for the first time school lunches cannot exceed a maximum calorie count (or it may be because some students don't eat the fruit and vegetable component of their lunch).

Helping Students Eat Healthy

These healthier meals will not have their intended impact if students do not eat them. How can educators help ensure the new nutrition standards are implemented successfully? Ideas include:

  • Speak positively about the school meal program
  • Encourage students to try new meals, even if they're unfamiliar
  • Incorporate nutrition education into the curriculum, helping students understand the importance of healthy eating
  • Support the overall message of healthy eating by serving healthier items during class parties and not using food as a reward
  • Keep parents informed by including information about improvements to school meals in class newsletters, electronic communications and so on

Parents can help, too. The National PTA offers suggestions to support the new standards, including:

  • Review the school menu and ask your child what he or she ate at school
  • Talk with your child about how the school lunch will make them healthier, stronger and happier
  • Feed your child more fruits, vegetables and whole grains at home so they are familiar with them at school
  • Bring healthy improvements in the cafeteria home
  • Model how to properly fill your dinner plate

What About Breakfast?

NSLP is extremely important in supporting the health of students, particularly low-income and other students whose households may be experiencing food insecurity. What many people do not know is that there is also a national School Breakfast Program (SBP) that operates much as the NSLP. Schools participating in this program are also held to nutrition standards, and low-income students qualify for free or reduced meals.

Research suggests that breakfast is the most important meal of the day for children's health, yet nationally, less than a quarter of all students and less than half of students who are eligible for a free or reduced-price breakfast are eating it. Increasing participation in this program could have a great impact on student health. (The National Education Association Health Information Network offers a guide on the benefits of breakfast and tips for increasing participation if you are interested in learning more.)

Whether it is breakfast or lunch, serving food in our schools provides the opportunity to impact children's lives in a variety of ways. And so during National School Lunch Week and every day, we should celebrate it.

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