Don't make us tighten our belts on child nutrition programs while the girth of the nation grows. The government spends $1 million per soldier in Afghanistan, yet barely spends $1 on the food in a school lunch.
When President Obama addresses the nation in his State of the Union, he will outline his priorities for 2010: jobs, the deficit, and health care reform. The President will then call for a three-year freeze on domestic programs. Will a program created to "promote the health and well-being of the nation's children" survive the freeze?
Probably not, unless we, the voting public, find our voice and let our elected officials know that child nutrition in general -- and the National School Lunch Program in particular -- is a priority.
Now is absolutely NOT the time to cut support for the next generation's health. The most vulnerable of U.S. citizens, our children, face the strange paradox of being both overfed and malnourished. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 1 in 4 children suffered hunger in the U.S. in 2008. At the same time, the CDC reports that 1 in 3 children will develop Type II Diabetes in their lifetime, make that 1 in 2 if the child is black or Hispanic. Resident Mom-in-Chief Michelle Obama recently highlighted these sickening statistics in her speech to the Council of Mayors last week as she launched her campaign against obesity.
The Child Nutrition Act is being debated in Congress right now, which means we have a rare opportunity to actually improve how food for our youngest citizens is funded, sourced, defined, and prioritized. This window for change only arises once every five years.
Off to a good start in 2009, the Obama Administration included an additional $1 billion for child nutrition programs. Put into lunch money terms, that's pocket change, but it's a welcome jingle in the ridiculously low budgets faced by school cafeterias.
Food service directors face a monumental daily battle to create school lunch menus, given an average of just $1 to spend on the food portion of lunch (once labor and other overhead costs are deducted) while being expected to incorporate minimum nutritional standards and operate in the black. The federal government provides the lunch money, on average, $2.68 for the kids that qualify for a free lunch, $2.28 for a reduced price lunch, and $0.25 cents for all. And those amounts include the overhead and facility costs associated with serving a meal such as the fluorescent lights in the cafeteria.
An oft-quoted statistic for the price tag of one soldier in Afghanistan is $1 million, for a total of $65 billion. How about we secure another line of defense that addresses both health care and national security--the lunch line? Do tater tots, pizza, and soda rise to the level of calling in Janet Napolitano or David Petraeus? Oddly, yes, because the National School Lunch Program was originally created to promote "nutrition in the national defense," as a solution to young men who were unfit for service in WWI and WWII. The lunch line was actually designed to prepare soldiers for the front lines. (And sadly, 27 percent of the population for military service today are too obese/overweight to serve).
I think that stoves for school kitchens are just as important for our nation's children as mine-resistant armor is for the vehicles of our brave servicemen and women. Here at home, on the front lines of nutrition as national defense, food service staff are being asked to fight obesity by creating healthful meals without proper equipment, such as knives, ovens, and cold storage space.
Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National School Lunch Program, recently said, "The first item that the President discussed with me when I was first selected for this job was for USDA to provide our children with healthier, more nutritious meals." And kudos to the USDA for recently announcing 25 million for food service equipment funds to improve the quality of school meals. The Obama Administration gets it, and they must continue to make good on this commitment, even with a tight budget.
In addition to healthier children, it could pay other dividends to a struggling sector of our economy: farmers. When signing the National School Lunch Act into law in1946, Harry Truman famously said, "In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children, or more prosperous than its farmers."
Better school food brigades have fashioned themselves in several forms to protect our kids and preserve our farms, such as the One Tray campaign and the Farm to School Collaborative, which includes groups such as the National Farm to School Network, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and Community Food Security Coalition. Three Fellows of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (of which I am one) developed two videos --"Lunch Encounters," a spoof of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and "Priceless," a MasterCard parody--to increase public awareness about improving child nutrition by encouraging a more direct connection between local farms and federal nutrition.
If President Obama can heed Truman's advice, he'll support increased funding for child nutrition and win-win solutions like Farm to School, which cost-effectively brings healthy local food to school children nationwide while boosting the local economy. A reformed school lunch, with improved nutrition standards, increased reimbursement rates, and access to local healthy food, has the potential to nourish more than 31 million children daily in our education system; that is, 5 days a week, 180 days a year of our collective future.
The nation's fiscal health is dependent upon the health of the next generation. When we consider the cost of inaction in a matter of national security, lives are at stake; so it is the case with the Child Nutrition Act. Let's take this opportunity to nourish the nation, one tray at a time.