The Shutdown and the Refuge of School Food

For many kids, school food provides the main and sometimes only source of nutrition they receive on a daily basis. In some of our nation’s schools, 98 percent of the children depend on this program to eat. During the government shutdown, this program was especially critical for our children due to cuts in the SNAP and other supplemental nutrition programs as well as sudden disappearance of millions of paychecks. But even our school lunch program was in jeopardy. Some school districts reported that the shutdown left school districts in all 50 states with a very difficult choice: once the money ran out children with money would eat and those who were eligible for free lunch would go without. Suddenly the fractures and nuttiness that pervades Washington would have resulted in millions of hungry children

Make no mistake: The school breakfast and lunch programs feed millions of children who really need it. During the economic decline, the number of children registering for the National School Lunch Program has climbed – up 25 percent in some states. And it’s not just the ability to provide food, but what kids actually get to eat at school, which fortunately has been improving. Over the past year, 50 million school kids saw the promise of a healthier lunch menu thanks to the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.” The program requires schools to serve more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains as well as more sources of lean protein, and encourages school gardens and nutrition education programs.

New federal regulations for school lunches and vending machines start taking effect next year. Under the new rules, vending machine food has to be healthier, and contain mostly fruits, vegetables, protein, or dairy or contain at least 50 percent whole grains. There is an outright ban on soda and caps on calories that come from sweetening additives, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar.

Thankfully obesity rates are starting to decline. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) studied the issue and found the obesity rate for poor children fell in 18 states and the Virgin Islands between 2008 and 2011. The CDC reports that new nutrition standards played a role in many states, including Mississippi which saw its childhood obesity rate drop by 13 percent in only five years.

We all know that fresh food, if prepared properly, delivers more nutrients, reduces carbon emissions, connects schools to their communities and benefits the local economy. Studies have proven that what kids are eating impacts their test scores; their ability to concentrate; the levels of school violence; and students’ good feelings about themselves.

Given the impact that the shutdown had on our country’s poor children and their ability to eat, it is somewhat ironic that we are in the middle of National School Lunch Week, which runs from October 14th to October 18th . During the government shutdown, we were reminded what a vital program school lunch is and how it can be transformed to better meet nutritional needs. The week-long observance, which is a largely untapped opportunity to continue the badly needed conversation about our children’s health, creates a nationwide platform to continue the revolution that has been started. While the Washington crisis has been temporarily averted, the notion that we live in a country whose leaders would risk the lives, health and future of our children leaves us hungry for leaders who are compassionate, decent and focused on protecting our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.