From the schoolyard: You are what you eat

Congress passed historic legislation with the School Lunch Bill last week. The federal reimbursement rate for school lunches will go up six cents to $2.74, which is the first time in three decades that the rate has gone up. With thousands of kids eating reduced-cost or free lunches, that’s bound to add up. But perhaps what is most exciting about the bill is the focus on better foods offered in the schools, from the lunches themselves to what is in the vending machines.

From the New York Times:

The bill gives the secretary of agriculture authority to establish nutrition standards for foods sold in schools during the school day, including items in vending machines. The standards would require schools to serve more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.

And for the first time in more than three decades, the bill would increase federal reimbursement for school lunches beyond inflation — to help cover the cost of higher-quality meals. It would also allow more than 100,000 children on Medicaid to qualify automatically for free school meals.

Since my daughter is only six months, this isn’t exactly a huge issue in my daily life…yet. We do put a lot of thought into her first foods, including making a lot of the baby food that the girl eats. But even if I wasn’t a mother, this issue resonates with me. Since I was one of those poor kids who ate from the free school lunch program, I know first-hand how important it is that kids get those lunches. I didn’t always get breakfast, but I always got a hot lunch.

With the terrible economy, many school systems have had to cut back or eliminate free lunches all-together. (And not always in the best ways, as Albuquerque demonstrated last year with their horribly discriminatory cheese sandwich plan.) And nearly half of all kids who qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunch get one.

In fact, according to this USA Today article, the number of kids needing free or reduced-cost lunches is at its highest level ever:

The number of U.S. households that can’t consistently put food on the table rose to 17 million, or 14.6%, in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the highest level in a decade. The use of food stamps is at an all-time high, and so is the percentage of children receiving free or reduced-price school meals, which rose from 59.3% in 2007 to 62.5% in 2009.

Hungry kids are kids who can’t focus and learn in school. We have to help our community by helping our kids get the best start in life possible — and that begins with a healthy foundation at the table. Before literacy. Before math. Before any other skills can be learned and applied… you have to build on a bedrock of solid health. So, it seems, this School Lunch Bill couldn’t come at a better time.

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