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School Lunch Punch
The wisdom of spending more money to provide healthier meals

Monday, September 21, 2009

CHILDREN ARE back in school. For many, that means regular meals as part of the federally subsidized school lunch program. Unfortunately, it also means, too often, food that isn't good for them.

We're encouraged that there is a growing movement to do something about that.

The Child Nutrition Act, which supplies breakfast and lunch to some 31 million students at an annual cost of $12 billion, is up for reauthorization by Congress next month. The timing is propitious: President Obama has signaled his interest by including an extra $1 billion in his 2010 budget proposal for school food improvements, and his administration is formulating policies said to be aimed at improving the nutrition and ultimately the health of children. Michelle Obama has made healthier eating a signature issue, using the White House garden as a way to engage children in the importance of fruits and vegetables. Businesses and private foundations are getting in on the act: Whole Foods Market, for example, has teamed with Chef Ann Cooper, the nation's "renegade lunch lady," to raise money and awareness and to provide practical advice.

Key to the movement is revising the nation's outdated nutrition guidelines, giving the Agriculture Department more clout to regulate the a la carte foods that children buy and, of course, coming up with the money that school officials need to cover the cost of quality ingredients, train staff and provide proper facilities. Most systems get $2.68 for each free lunch; Ms. Cooper argues that an additional dollar per day per child is needed.

There's no denying the enormous financial pressures facing the nation -- even without undertaking costly health-care reforms. But there is also no denying that what children are eating today carries its own costs in the form of increased obesity, incidences of diabetes and earlier deaths.

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