President Barack Obama is fond of saying that parents have a responsibility to their children’s education to turn off the TV and video games, an idea reiterated in his back-to-school speech to U.S. schoolchildren. That speech featured advice to take personal responsibility for one’s own education, set goals, do homework, behave, and never give up, despite personal or institutional barriers.
What the president neglected to mention, though, was the importance of the school cafeteria. He should have told America’s students to eat their vegetables.
With such pressing concerns in education as ensuring racial equity, improving teacher quality, and shoring up recession-hit budgets, it is easy to understand why Mr. Obama’s attention might not be on school food these days. Yet its quality could be important to a number of his other policy goals, including health care, climate change, and the economy. And now is the time to address the issue, with the reauthorization of the federal Child Nutrition Act under way. Getting that legislation right could have a powerful impact on future generations.
Consider that in 2007, according to the School Nutrition Association, U.S. schools served 6.7 billion breakfasts and lunches to children. It is one of the largest government programs for the provision of food. So what happens in America’s school cafeterias matters broadly to the country’s well-being.
School food matters because it affects students’ health. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the incidence of overweight and obese children has increased dramatically over recent decades, rising from 5 percent in 1980 to 12.4 percent in 2006 among 2- to 5-year-olds, and even more steeply for older youths—from 6.5 percent to 17 percent among 6- to 11-year-olds, and from 5 percent to 17.6 percent among 12- to 19-year-olds.
Of course, school nutrition programs are not solely, or even primarily, to blame for these trends. But a majority of school meals still contain more fat and calories than nutritional guidelines recommend. Unless we act to reverse the obesity trendlines, U.S. children will be at increasingly higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and other diseases, as well as for social discrimination.
School food also affects academic performance. Many studies have found that students who eat well do better in school. It is no coincidence that many districts offer all students free breakfasts during standardized-testing weeks. So if the president wants American students to improve their test scores, one thing he can do is ensure that government provides more access to better foods.
School meals have an impact as well on how children will eat as adults. And what are they now most likely to learn to eat? More than one-third of schools (35.5 percent, according to the SNA data), sell restaurant-branded fast food. Only 17.5 percent prepare more than half their entrees from scratch, leaving students to eat mostly packaged, processed food.
Too many students also eat in a fast-food-style environment at school, given on average just 25 to 30 minutes to purchase and eat their meals, and surrounded by advertising for candy, milk, soda, and chips. Nearly all students then have access to vending machines or canteens where they can buy the salty, sugary, and high-fat snacks being advertised. Put bluntly, students are being trained for the industrial food system.
The problems associated with that system, though, ultimately undercut national priorities beyond education. The obesity epidemic this system has helped foster, for example, costs the country an estimated $75 billion in direct health-care costs, $139 billion when indirect costs such as lost productivity and disability are included. The system also taxes our environment, as it depends on massive amounts of petroleum for fertilizer, pesticides, and fuel for farm equipment, processing, and transporting food. Pollution and the treatment of animals are also concerns.
There are some things the Obama administration is already doing in this area: providing stimulus funds to replace old, inefficient cafeteria appliances and requesting $1 billion to aid programs in the midst of a recession-driven increase in free meals. These are wonderful policies. But more needs to be done, to provide a vision for a healthier, more sustainable school food system.
First, we should make child nutrition a responsibility of the U.S. Department of Education. Currently, the school lunch program is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose mission is to help agribusiness first, kids second. Because misdirected “swine flu” fears have led to drops in pork consumption, for example, the USDA has purchased $30 million of surplus pork for schoolchildren this year, without regard to its nutritional status. To move the lunch program to the Education Department would make the focus what’s good for children and their learning instead of what’s good for industry.
Next, federal policy should put a priority on local food and farm-to-school programs. Right now, only about a third of schools get produce from local producers. Getting food from national sources adds miles of travel to the food students eat, and removes opportunities to provide economic stimulus to local and small-scale farmers.
School gardens should be supported, too. They provide fresh food and give students cross-curricular opportunities for learning about what they eat and how it grows. First lady Michelle Obama has installed a garden at the White House, where students come to help grow vegetables for use in the White House kitchen. The president should ask for significant funding in the Child Nutrition Act to help schools do the same.
We must also alter agriculture subsidies. A recent analysis in The New York Times showed that, since 1978, vegetables have become 41 percent more expensive, while soda is now 33 percent cheaper. The reason is straightforward: We subsidize corn growers with billions of dollars annually, and their product gets turned into cheap high-fructose corn syrup for sodas and snacks. Tomatoes and strawberries don’t get these huge subsidies. If we aligned payouts with the product’s health value, fruits and vegetables would be more accessible, and soda and snack food—substantial contributors to childhood obesity—would be more treat than staple.
Finally, we should eliminate the reduced-price-meals category at schools, making these meals free. For some families, even the daily 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast is a struggle. As proof, participation in the reduced-price-meals program goes down at the end of each month, as paychecks run out. Further, districts that have eliminated the reduced-price category have seen participation rates in breakfast and lunch programs increase dramatically. Eliminating the category also would bring school meals in line with other assistance programs, ease paperwork for districts, and, most importantly, constitute a moral action to end food insecurity for thousands of children.
So, to all the schoolkids: Though the president may have neglected to mention it, you should eat the broccoli and other fruits and veggies the lunch ladies serve you, not just the pizza and corn dogs. It would do you, and the rest of us, a lot of good. And with a little luck, the adults in your life will figure out how to deliver those veggies to all of us in ways that are affordable and sustainable.
A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as Obama’s Next School Message: Eat Your Veggies