Confession. Making my kids lunch every day is hard for me. I’m not proud of this. I am a mom that works in childhood obesity prevention, I have overhauled the snack program at our daycare, I am active in the local food movement, and I’m the mom that doesn’t bring chips or cookies for the baseball team. I drool over Pinterest pictures of bento-style lunch boxes overflowing with fruits, vegetables, homemade dips, adorable reusable napkins, and little notes that say, “Have a great day!” And yet this morning, when I finally pulled myself out of bed and realized that the bus was coming in 12 minutes and the kids were not dressed or fed, I thought to myself, “thank goodness for school lunch.”
I am grateful that the school lunch program is there for overloaded parents that struggle to get it all done. And I am grateful that the school lunch program is there for kids that need it the most. I’m glad that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is now in effect and that kids all over the country are now eating more fruits and veggies, more salads, and more whole grains. Although there have been some stories in the media about how kids are not eating the healthier foods and districts are dropping out of the program, these stories misrepresent reality. The reality, according to the School Nutrition Association’s 2013 Back to School Trends Survey, is that only 1 percent of school districts reported that they plan on having a school (not necessarily all schools) drop out of the national school lunch program. My reality is that I used to feel like a bad parent for letting my child buy lunch at school. That is no longer the case.
This year, in my role at the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, I had the opportunity to sit down for a school lunch with mostly Navajo students in a rural area of New Mexico, where obesity and diabetes rates are extremely high. It was affirming to see the long line of students waiting for a chef salad and great disappointment when the school ran out near the end of the line. I also had lunch at two different schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I live. One was a low-income school where most students were participating in the school lunch program and, again, I was shocked by the number of students eating salads. When I eat lunch at my son’s school, where not many students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, I am struck by the fact that, for the most part, the students taking the school lunch are getting a healthier meal than the ones that bring a lunch from home. It seems very few parents can pull off the Pinterest bento-style box on a daily basis. Most seem to grab whatever is convenient and tasty, regardless of nutritional value.
As sections of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act continue to roll out over the next couple of years, including updated breakfast guidelines, gradually phasing in lower sodium limits and increasing whole grains, and the USDA releases updated guidelines on competitive foods (foods sold outside of the school lunch program such as in vending machines, school stores, and a la carte lines), our schools will continue to become healthier places. My son’s school became a healthier place after joining the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program and working to add fresh fruit to breakfast, health education and physical activity breaks in the classroom, and staff wellness activities. For their efforts, they received the Bronze National Recognition Award last year at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Next week in Little Rock, the Alliance will recognize 267 schools with a bronze, silver, or gold National Recognition Award. To receive the bronze award, a school must be in compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for school meals. These schools represent 25 states and the District of Columbia and are trailblazers for school health. They show us that changes are possible.
Due to the combination of new federal guidelines and on-the-ground assistance from programs like the Healthy Schools Program, the great strides we celebrate next week will become the norm, not the exception. And on days like today, or maybe even every day, I will breathe a sigh of relief and send the kids off to school knowing that they will have a nutritious lunch. There is nothing more convenient than that.
This post is part of the National School Lunch Week with Healthy Food! A MomsRising Blog Carnival. Take a moment to read and comment on these thoughtful blogs, then tell us your story. Our stories are powerful and are what led administrators to set these rules in place.