Lunchtime Lethargy

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Lunchtime Lethargy

Megan Buskey

More money for the federal school lunch program still leaves nutritious meals out of reach.

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As Kristen Hinman documents in “The School Lunch Wars” [Spring ’11], the local elementary’s cafeteria remains a battleground between good intentions and cold fiscal reality. At the end of March, the School Nutrition Association, a membership organization representing school cafeteria professionals around the country, released a letter praising the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) revised nutrition standards for school meal programs, which were issued at the beginning of this year. But the association warned that many of the stipulations, such as those calling for additional servings of fresh fruit, vegetables, and protein, were too costly to implement. If the USDA’s vision were fully realized, the cost of school lunches would increase by 14 cents and school breakfasts by 50 cents. Congress authorized spending only an additional six cents per lunch under The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. In the proposed regulations published in The Federal Register in January, the USDA simply notes that the costs “would be incurred by the local and state agencies that control food service accounts.” Given how many states are operating on empty these days, it’s hard to imagine how this plan will fly.

One way schools could swing healthier meals is by raising the price of lunch for students who are not eligible for a reduced price meal. (The meals of these better-off kids are subsidized too, but at lower levels.) Some worry that this would lower the number of kids who purchase the cafeteria’s lunch option, sending them foraging through the troughs of the cafeteria’s even less healthy à la carte fare. Should the school lunch program privilege the interest of poor kids over the interest of all kids? As with so many elements of the school lunch quandary, there is no easy answer.
 
Photo credit: Ben+Sam, via flickr