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Why We Need Better School Lunches in America

Op-ed

If you live in the United States, chances are, your typical school lunch consists of heavily processed pizza entrees, grease-coated cheese fries, and colorful bags of corn chips. Sugar-packed juice boxes replace fruit servings, and salads make a rare appearance. Initially, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought universal free lunches to all American students--a lifesaver for families that struggled to afford basic necessities. However, with the program expiring in late June 2022, a looming hunger crisis threatens to wreak havoc on an already fragile school lunch program.

Schools have always struggled to serve healthy, nutritious meals while sticking to a constantly lowering budget. Under the USDA's National School Lunch Program (NSLP), school lunch programs that receive funding from the government are required to follow federal and local nutritional standards.

However, what happens if the funding from the NSLP isn't enough? Oftentimes, federal funding isn't enough to cover school lunch costs and cafeteria worker salaries, which leads to rising costs for school lunches. For wealthier families, the problem can be solved with lunches from home, but for lower-income areas, the effects are devastating.

Although schools do offer free lunch to the children of low-income parents, the process of obtaining free lunch is confusing and often humiliating. Parents don't want their information to be revealed, nor do their children want to be ostracized in school. And those who lie just above the required income bracket for free lunch are left on their own.

The food itself comes from large food corporations, which gladly sell frozen, pre-prepared chicken nuggets and frozen pizzas in bulk, dominating the industry. In addition, these large companies spend millions of dollars convincing the USDA to lower nutritional requirements in schools, relegating the responsibility of nutrition to individual districts.

Yes, many schools want to serve the best possible meals to their students, but the budget limitations make it near impossible. Schools oftentimes cope with this by raising the price of school lunches and serving meals that scrape the bare minimum of nutritional value. The result? School lunches that are unhealthy, and kids who cannot afford them. It has already been proven that nutrition plays an essential part in children's development. Furthermore, students consume as much as half their daily calorie intake at school. Unhealthy diets correlate with increased rates of obesity, which can develop into diabetes or heart disease later on. Schools have tried to implement farm-to-school programs which stimulate local economies and support small business owners. However, these programs don't replace the big food corporations that monopolize the industry.

Recent initiatives such as the Let's Move! program, led by former First Lady, Michelle Obama, has seen some success in lowering obesity rates, particularly in younger children. However, the bulk of its impact is the awareness that was brought upon child nutrition; school boards scrambled to reform school nutrition, amid parents' outcry.

However, there is more work to be done. The school lunch industry needs drastic changes led by radical reforms. We need representatives to pass laws that enable more food to come from locally sourced farmers, even if it costs more. Fresh food can improve children's performance, as written in Brookings, a public policy organization, "We find that in years when a school contracts with a healthy lunch company . . . on average, student test scores are 0.03 to 0.04 standard deviations higher (about 4 percentile points)." By supporting local farmers, schools are simultaneously supporting small businesses and stimulating the economy.

Another important step to reforming the school lunch system is to raise nutritional standards, and demand that companies abide by them as well. The government can't allow frozen-food companies to bribe lawmakers into lowering nutritional standards. By reducing the sodium and sugar levels in school meals, it isn't just test scores that increase. Promoting healthy eating can reduce obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, increasing lifespans.

This isn't to say that schools can only serve fresh food. That isn't realistic for every school. Rather, schools should adjust their menu to cut out certain high-calorie entrees and add salads or fresh fruit. Furthermore, the fruits and vegetables served shouldn't always come out of a can. Although it can help food stay good for longer, canned food doesn't serve the same nutrients as fresh food does.

In order to make school lunches cost-friendly for children of all income levels, we can look to countries such as England, Finland, and India that have managed to offer free school lunches for all students. By serving free meals, schools boost the attending rates of students. This would require a larger budget to be allocated for school meals, which is costly, but transformative for students' future wellbeing.

In light of recent discussions, school nutrition can seem like a debt. However, the need for better regulations and increased budgets extends beyond economics. School lunches play a vital part in the well-being of over 50 million children, who will be the ones most affected by them.

Peggy Chen
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Peggy Chen is a high school sophomore from Virginia. She writes about science, culture, and everything in between. In her free time, she enjoys reading memoirs, card games, and random trivia.