While most of us shopped for turkeys and weighed the merits of various pies (I’ve already shared my thoughts on that issue) in the run-up to Thanksgiving, Congress was considering another meal that is a staple of American life: the school lunch.
As part of an agriculture appropriations bill, lawmakers affirmed that an eighth of a cup of tomato paste will continue to count as a vegetable serving for the purposes of school nutritional standards. The decision caused an uproar, with opponents quickly making the leap from tomato paste to the tomato paste delivery method favored by children and cost-conscious school administrators alike: pizza. Nutrition advocates and media outlets latched onto the idea that Congress had declared pizza to be a vegetable. And they weren’t happy about it.
But while legislators quibble over standards designed to combat child obesity, a much more significant problem continues largely unaddressed. For many of our country’s children, the biggest nutritional concern is not eating too much pizza and too few vegetables, but simply not getting enough of any food at all.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2010, 16.2 million children in the U.S. lived in households defined as “food-insecure,” meaning that at times during the year they “were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” While only 14.5 percent of households in general were “food-insecure” in 2010, an astounding 20.2 percent of households with children met the definition. Of households with children, 5.7 percent had “very low food security,” meaning that “normal eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced at times during the year because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.”
Childhood malnutrition has serious health consequences, including anemia, impaired cognitive development, and stunted growth. Moreover, when children go to school hungry, they are less able to do what they are there to accomplish: learn. According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest charitable hunger relief organization, food insufficiency diminishes children’s ability to “to retain knowledge, concentrate, and develop language and math skills.” But we don’t need advocacy groups to tell us this; we know it from personal experience. I’m a too-well-fed middle-aged man, and I’m unproductive without a decent breakfast in the morning. If I can’t perform on an empty stomach, how can a second-grader?
Preventing childhood hunger ought to be reason enough to take action on this issue. Even if it were not, there is an obvious economic rationale. This school year, public elementary and secondary schools are expected to spend an average of $10,591 on each student. To get the most out of that money, we need to ensure that, when they’re in the classroom, students are thinking about math and history, not where their next meal will come from.
School lunches are an important part of feeding our nation’s students. The number of students receiving subsidized lunches rose to 21 million last school year, a 17 percent increase compared to the 2006-2007 school year, The New York Times reported based on data from the Department of Agriculture. A Department of Education study this month showed that more than half of fourth-graders are now enrolled in the program.
But one meal, five days a week during the school year, isn’t enough. As the old adage goes, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and the School Breakfast Program is woefully inadequate. Of the 18 million children who qualified for free or reduced-price meals in 2007, just over 8 million also received school breakfasts, Feeding America found. And while some schools offer after-school or Saturday meals, many do not.
Summer vacations pose a particular risk to students who cannot count on adequate meals at home. “Summer is the time of greatest food hardship for millions of kids in America,” James Arena-DeRosa, northeast regional administrator for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition program, said in commenting on outreach efforts by the New York City schools’ free summer meal program. Studies have shown that summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students, contributing to the achievement gap between these students and their more socioeconomically advantaged peers. Food scarcity may be part of the problem.
Expanding breakfast, after-school and summer meals ought to be our top priority in improving children’s nutrition. By extending school cafeteria hours and providing students with prepared food to take home when cafeterias are closed, we can do far more to improve childhood nutrition, and likely boost educational achievement, than we could ever do by simply redistributing lunch selections across the food groups.
This is not to minimize the importance of childhood obesity. It too is an important health problem, but it is a much more difficult one to address through public policy. Providing a few more veggies at lunch won’t do much to help children who seldom exercise, gorge on sweets, or live on a diet of hamburgers and french fries. Schools can play a role by helping children understand their dietary choices and by giving them healthy options when possible, but substituting asparagus for pizza in the cafeteria lines will not resolve the issue.
Meanwhile, serving a free supper to a child who needs it can have an immediate impact. Even if what’s on the tray is pizza.