For healthier kids, increase the federal school lunch budget

By Ann Cooper
Friday, March 5, 2010

For all the good first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative will do motivating the private sector, there is hard work ahead as Congress takes up reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act this year.

The administration has proposed an additional $1 billion per year for child nutrition in its fiscal 2011 budget. At first blush, given the state of the economy and the president's call for a three-year freeze on discretionary spending, this might seem like a win. The School Nutrition Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have applauded the proposal and are asking parents and school administrators to get behind this investment.

But the truth is that $1 billion is a far cry from what's needed to get good food into schools. In fact, $1 billion for child nutrition per year translates to mere pennies for every school lunch. That's not even what it costs me to put a fresh apple on each lunch tray.

The National School Lunch Program feeds nearly 31 million students every day for the bargain price of $9.3 billion per year. Under this program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spends only $2.68 per lunch for eligible students. Do you remember when you last ate a fresh, healthy lunch for less than $3? With that in mind, it should be evident that we need more money for healthy school food.

As a nation we spend more than $260 billion annually on just two health issues: diabetes and obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated that of the children born in 2000, one out of every three Caucasians and two out of every three African Americans and Hispanics will develop diabetes. Research shows that this may be the first generation in our nation's history to die at a younger age than their parents. Diabetes and obesity are the health-care crises of our era and, in most cases, can be prevented with healthy diet and exercise.

Every day millions of children eat lunch, and sometimes breakfast, at school. For many, these are the only hot meals they get all day. To support the first lady's initiative, we should ask our elected officials for $5.4 billion more annually to support child nutrition through the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. An additional $5.4 billion a year would ensure an extra dollar for every lunch and could guarantee that fresh, healthy foods find their way to our kids' bellies.

While that may seem like a lot, more money is not enough to solve the problem. As Congress weighs its options for child nutrition, it must introduce regulations that guarantee implementation of the proposed Institute of Medicine school food guidelines. It's the only way to ensure that more funding translates into healthier food. If school food-buying decisions are based on those guidelines, that extra dollar a day will turn into fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and whole grains in our children's lunches.

Michelle Obama is raising our consciousness about the impact a diet of highly processed, high-calorie foods is having on our children. It's up to Congress to change the way our children eat and to ensure that enough money is invested in school food to guarantee the next generation reaches adulthood at a healthy weight.

The writer, a chef known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, is interim director of nutrition services at the Boulder Valley School District and founder of, a Web site that advocates healthier school lunches.

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