With the epidemic rise in diet-related chronic illnesses in the past few decades, many are looking to school lunch as a way to nourish children while simultaneously teaching them healthy dietary habits. It makes perfect sense, right? In fact, why would we choose to serve children anything BUT healthy food for school breakfasts and lunches? Healthy food costs more than junk food, but it’s money well spent because it’s an investment.

First off, it’s an investment in the children’s immediate health as it provides them with the nutrients they need to grow strong and healthy. Second, it’s an investment in their future health, as it teaches them what it means to eat healthy food. Third, it’s an investment in their education, as children are better able to learn when they have a belly full of good-for-you food instead of a bellyache from junk. (This is especially true when you consider that artificial food dyes are proven to cause behavioral problems in children, yet they are still legal to serve in school breakfasts and lunches. Why on earth would you purposefully make a child prone to behavioral problems and then send them back to class for their teacher to deal with them?)

Yet, in too many schools, healthy school lunch is NOT the reality. I asked the second grader in my life what she eats for lunch and she told me cheeseburgers, sliders, corn dogs, and hot dogs. These are the most processed forms of meat you can get – the cheapest, least healthy, and most risky. (In fact, this week USA Today came out with a story about meat tainted with salmonella that was served in schools and was not recalled even after it was known to be tainted.)

Why do we feed our kids such crap? Money, plain and simple. Let me explain.

School lunch food can be separated into two categories – the federally reimbursable school lunch (the food given to children who receive free and reduced cost lunch) and everything else. Everything else is called "competitive food" because it competes with the school lunch for children’s money and appetites. The two categories are regulated and paid for differently.

The USDA does regulate the nutrition of the school lunch. The regulations are out of date – the Institute of Medicine just came out with brand new recommendations to update school lunch nutrition regulations – but at least it’s better than nothing. Perhaps more powerful than the USDA’s nutrition regulations are Congress’s funding. Congress sets how much a school is reimbursed for every free lunch given away to students, and that basically sets how much schools spend on each lunch. Schools receive a certain amount in cash, supplemented by free commodities from the USDA. These commodities are given away as a subsidy to agribusiness. Right now the pork and dairy industries are in trouble so schools are getting a lot of free pork and dairy. Altogether (including cash and commodities), schools get about $2.60 or so per kid per meal. Of that, only about one dollar goes to purchase food and the rest pays for supplies, equipment, and labor.

There are a few reasons why school lunch food is so bad. First of all, it’s hard to buy an entire meal of healthy food for a dollar. Second, because each meal contributes so little to covering the overhead costs of the lunch program, schools must sell as many lunches as possible. To do so, they often have to appeal to the lowest common denominator. In other words, junk sells better than healthy stuff. Last, many schools simply lack equipment and staff to cook healthy food. They aren’t equipped for any food prep beyond heating meals up, and that severely limits the food they can serve.

The best thing Congress can do in the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill to improve school lunch would be to substantially increase the reimbursement rate – the amount given to schools to cover the cost of each lunch given out to students who qualify for free or reduced cost lunch. The amount needed is subject to debate, but clearly $2.60 ain’t enough. The School Nutrition Association is only asking for a paltry additional $.35. Others say the reimbursement rate should be raised as high as $5. In addition to raising the reimbursement rate, Congress should also set aside money for grants for schools that wish to upgrade kitchen equipment or train staff so they are better able to provide healthy meals.

Then there’s competitive foods, the a la carte items sold in the lunch line. Currently, there are technically some rules governing the nutrition of these foods, but in practice it’s a free-for-all. There is no food too junky to serve in schools. This is going to be changed (most likely) in the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization. There’s already a bill in Congress for this – "The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act" (S.934 in the Senate and H.R.1324 in the House) – and it will hopefully be added as an amendment to the Child Nutrition Reauthorization and then passed. Congress won’t set the actual nutrition standards themselves – their bill will direct the USDA to do so.

The cost of competitive foods is not regulated by the federal government because competitive foods are purchased by children, not given away to recipients of free or reduced cost lunch. However, in many cases schools use profits from sales of competitive foods to cover the costs of the entire lunch program. For this reason, they often choose to sell foods that kids like and are likely to buy – junk.

Even worse, sometimes schools get kickbacks from beverage companies under so-called "pouring rights agreements." The school signs a contract with Coca-Cola or PepsiCo to only sell products from their company (water, juice, sports drinks, and soda) and in return, the school gets kickbacks. This is a sad reflection on the state of school budgets, and I believe that pouring rights agreements should be banned. While there’s been a nationwide voluntary effort to get caloric sodas out of schools, none of these drinks are great for kids. Water should be free, and all drinks besides 100% juice, water, and milk are basically junk. While 100% juice is good for you, it is only good in very small quantities. Juice is high in sugar and, unlike fruit, it lacks fiber to fill you up.

So that’s the lowdown on school lunch. Mostly the entire issue comes down to money. Schools need money to teach children so they don’t have to turn to pouring rights agreements for extra cash. Schools need money for kitchen equipment and trained staff. And schools need money to buy and serve healthy food for lunch. Schools should not be a dumping ground for cheap commodities that no one else wants to buy. And nutrition standards should be updated according to the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations so that our children are given a healthy start in life, healthy habits, and the best possible chance to learn while they are in class.

Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson