December 26, 2010

Five myths about school food

Make lunch free for all, and count on more kids rejecting chips and cookies in favor of -- yes -- fruits and vegetables.

By JANET POPPENDIECK Special to The Washington Post

When President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act earlier this month, he joked that if he hadn't been able to get the bill passed he would have been "sleeping on the couch." His wife, Michelle, laughed this off: "Let's just say, it got done so we don't have to go down that road," she told the crowd at a D.C. elementary school for the signing.


Janet Poppendieck, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, is the author of "Free for All: Fixing School Food in America."

The bill, which was a priority for the first lady, is designed to improve both access to and quality of school food, and it contains many provisions that will help in Michelle Obama's campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation -- and a few that may actually hurt it. The fight over how and what we feed our kids at school is a complex one; clear thinking about what we need is often hampered by persistent myths.

1. School meals are free for the children who really need them.

This is certainly the intent of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, which offer free and reduced-price meals to children, based on their families' income, as well as full-price meals to any student. Currently, students are eligible for free meals if that income is below 130 percent of the federal poverty line -- $23,803 for a family of three, for instance -- and for reduced-price meals if it is somewhat higher -- up to $33,874 for that family of three.

Unfortunately, these thresholds are unrealistically low, especially in areas with high living costs. The 2008 Household Food Security survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that more than a fifth of households with the most severe form of food insecurity -- in which children themselves sometimes went without meals -- had incomes above the cutoff for reduced-price school meals.

Even some children whose family incomes are low enough to qualify for free school meals never actually get them. The process for establishing eligibility is cumbersome, expensive and prone to mistakes. In a recent USDA study, more than a third of children denied certification for free or reduced-price meals were found to have been denied in error. And even after getting approval, at some schools a child must wait each time as a cafeteria cashier checks eligibility.

Finally, there is a stigma attached to free meals, which deters some families from applying and discourages some students from eating the meals for which they qualify. Direct certification, a process in which state or local welfare agencies notify schools of eligible children, has been shown to reduce mistakes and bring more kids into the program.

The new law contains a modest expansion of that procedure. But the

only way to fully eliminate the errors, the administrative burden and the stigma, is to provide school meals the way we provide books, desks and chairs: free for all.

2. Most students who don't take part in the National School Lunch Program eat a healthy lunch brought from home.

Even if eligibility for free lunch is problematic, students can always brown-bag it, right? That's not what I've seen in school cafeterias across the country.

In the USDA's most recent comprehensive study of school food, 62 percent of students chose the school lunch and about 10 percent of the students brought lunch from home on the day being surveyed.

What happened to everyone else? Some did not eat lunch (4 percent of elementary students and 8 percent of high school students). Others bought food from a la carte options in the cafeteria, left the campus to purchase food, or bought from vending machines or school stores.

What they were getting on their own was typically not as healthy as the school lunch that met the federal nutrition guidelines, known as the reimbursable meal. According to one recent nutrient assessment, high schoolers who participated in the lunch program consumed significantly greater amounts of vitamins A and B12, calcium, potassium and other nutrients than nonparticipants did.

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