In an effort to curtail the pandemic-caused spike in child hunger and malnutrition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made school breakfast and lunch free for all public school students through the 2022-23 school year. States like California and Maine are already planning to continue the policy beyond 2023.
Universal school meals will help to eliminate child hunger in America, and we should celebrate the mainstreaming of the policy. At the same time, the policy on its own does not adequately address the equally serious crisis of preventable, diet-related diseases among children and adolescents. With kids’ diets and health having markedly declined during the pandemic, it has never been more urgent to name the problem and demand action from our elected officials.
A necessary starting point is to acknowledge that the food industry’s ubiquity within and influence over the school food landscape is leaving children nutritionally short-changed in the name of profit and convenience.
Food industry lobbyists have successfully manipulated school nutrition regulations against kids’ best interests while food service management companies pump out cheaply manufactured heat-and-serve entrees for schools.
For instance, many school cafeterias routinely serve an industry formulated ‘beef sausage breakfast sandwich’ containing nearly 500 milligrams of sodium, virtually no fiber or antioxidants, and only 214 calories. This is a disease-promoting level of salt with a greater sodium-to-calorie ratio than even a MacDonald’s Big Mac. And indeed, with regular school lunch options like chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and pepperoni pizza, school menus too often resemble those of fast food restaurants.
Take a first-of-its-kind study in the journal Nutrients which found that, although schools should strive to limit added sugars to less than ten percent of total calories per meal in accordance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, added sugars made up 17 percent of total calories in school breakfast, on average. Moreover, more than two-thirds of schools served lunches exceeding the ten percent limit.
These realities leave many advocates questioning whether the nation’s school meals consistently meet any of the federal nutrition recommendations. Indeed, under a privatized school food regime, there is concern that the crucial universal school meals policy will function simply as a corporate handout without delivering balanced nutrition to students.
That’s why we must take bigger, bolder action against child malnutrition just as we did with child hunger—leveraging critical institutions like schools as targets of reform.
Just as before, advocates must pressure our elected officials and regulators to do at least the following two things. First, modify the school nutrition standards to require more whole, fiber-rich foods; this would shift the balance away from the highly processed convenience items that currently dominate school menus. Second, provide schools with resources, equipment, and training for the preparation of more scratch-made meals; building up their capacity for on-site cooking would give schools far more control over the nutritional content of the meals they serve.
Policymakers made the right call on universal school meals, but stopping there leaves the job half done. Combating chronic, diet-related diseases among young people is an urgent cause. Let's continue to take advantage of our essential school meals programs to fight that battle, too, by helping schools overcome their privatization problem.
Madeline is the Food System and Nutrition Policy Analyst at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes.
You can reach her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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