Transforming the Tray: What Kids Eat Means Something

Michelle Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, "Renegade Lunch Lady" Ann Cooper, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, and countless others have been drawing attention to a critical component of our health and educational system: lunch.

Our kids are taught the food pyramid and to eat the colors of the rainbow, but they get a different message when the lunch bell rings. More than 30 percent of American children are overweight or obese, and for some low-income children, school food accounts for more than half of their daily calories.

Millions across the country are calling for change. On Labor Day, more than 300 eat-in's organized by Slow Food chapters across the U.S. raised a collective fork for school lunch reform.

On Tuesday, Obama addressed the nation's students to stress the importance of education and making the most of it. His speech should have include the education offered in the cafeteria.

Today, One Tray, the national campaign to improve child nutrition by encouraging a more direct connection between local farms and federal nutrition, launched two short videos that explain the significance school food has in kids' diets and seeks to ensure that those calories consumed are healthy ones. "Lunch Encounters," a spoof of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and "Priceless," a MasterCard parody, were created by three of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's Food and Society Fellows, Shalini Kantayya, Nicole Betancourt and me. The goal is to raise awareness of Farm to School programs for the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act by depicting the cafeteria tray as the centerpiece for a reformed school food system that supports healthy children, local farms and smart schools.

As kids go back to school, and Congress goes back to work this week, the videos are timely and clear: if you want a healthier America, start by taking action at Healthy, local, sustainably produced school food can improve the health of kids, develop new marketing opportunities for farmers and support the local economy.

The Child Nutrition Act, which expires September 30, determines what more than 30 million children eat at school five days a week, 180 days a year, making school meals a critical entry point for improving children's health. The 2004 Child Nutrition Act included one provision on Farm to School (section 122): a seed grant program with $10 million in discretionary funding. Farm to School is a win-win for everyone. Farm to School programs address many critical issues of our society: the health of our children, economic success of our farm communities and environmental footprint of food traveling long distances.

Unfortunately, the 2004 Act's Farm to School provision failed to receive an appropriation. In the current reauthorization appeal, One Tray requests that Congress enact $50 million in mandatory funding for section 122. This would fund 100 to 500 projects per year, up to $100,000 each, to cover start-up costs for Farm to School programs. These competitive, one-time grants will allow schools to develop vendor relationships with nearby farmers, plan seasonal menus and promotional materials, start school gardens and develop hands-on nutrition education to demonstrate the important interrelationship between nutrition and agriculture.

"As a mother of two young girls, I take care of 'What's for dinner, Mom?' and know that the answer will shape their future. I expect Congress's answer for lunch to reflect that same future," said Nicole Betancourt, CEO and Founder of ParentEarth. "We hope that these videos will mobilize moms around the country to take a stand for Farm to School."

The One Tray campaign advocates for Congress to adopt future policy solutions that support:

  • Mandatory Funding for Farm to School Programs
  • Increased Reimbursement Rates
  • Strengthened Nutrition Standards for School Meal Programs and Competitive Foods

It's great that families that shop at Whole Foods can now donate to Ann Coopers' School Lunch Revolution campaign. I donated last week, but that's not the point. Those families can generally afford to pack local, organic lunches for their kids if they aren't happy with the meals served in school. But what about the 21 million kids that are on free and reduced meals? What about their health? What about their food community from home to school?

Low-income or rich, rural or urban or suburban, vulnerable or privileged kids -- they are all our future. Every child, no matter her family income or school district, deserves a healthy meal.

One tray, one future.

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