One of the most successful and bipartisan programs in United States history is the National School Lunch program – and today as we celebrate National School Lunch Week this October 15 – 19, it’s important to reflect on the millions and millions of children who have benefited from this program over the years.
This year schools will celebrate National School Lunch Week with the theme “Lots 2 Love”, intended to encourage students and school nutrition professionals to share what they love most about school lunches.
For many kids, school food is the main source of nutrition they receive on a daily basis. In fact, 30 million children are served lunches daily and more than 5 billion meals are served annually according to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
The school lunch program has evolved over the years. The program was set into place by Gen. Lewis B. Hershey in 1945 when he testified before the House Agriculture Committee that as many as 40 percent of draftees were rejected due to poor nutrition. The National School Lunch Act in 1945 called for a national subsidized school lunch program to ensure that students during their developmental years receive lunch regardless of their ability to pay.
Since then, our knowledge of nutritional needs and healthy lunches has evolved from an emphasis on meats and grains to a more balanced approach emphasizing fruits and vegetables. Even our definition of protein has grown from meat, to lean meats, and now to plant-based options that provide nutritional value and variety.
For decades, Earth Day Network has worked to make school lunches healthier. In 2010, Earth Day Network was part of a coalition to fund the DC Healthy Foods Act, which became a model for the federal Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, passed with bi-partisan support to increase access to healthier food especially for low-income kids. Administered by USDA this legislation encourages schools to increase servings of fruits and vegetables offered as part of their lunch program by imposing weekly caps on grains and proteins.
Since the introduction of the Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act kids are now eating healthier than ever in schools eating more fruits and vegetables, more salad bars and smoothie bars opening in schools as well as revenue from lunches being up due to more kids eating cafeteria food as opposed to bringing in lunch.
Our whole way of thinking about nutrition has changed. The USDA has issued new guidelines replacing the old food pyramid with new recommendations that focus on increasing servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and moderate portions of protein and dairy while limiting salt, fat and sugar. These food changes are now reflected in meals students receive at their local schools.
But there is more to do.
Food choices can have a big impact on the planet, too. By increasing plant-based foods and decreasing animal protein we can cut our ecological footprints dramatically. Even small steps, like Meatless Mondays which encourage school cafeterias to serve plant-based meals one or more days per week, can help the environment and at the same time introduce kids to new healthy food options.
For many kids across the country school lunch (and breakfast) may be the most nutritional meal they get each day. By promoting healthy eating and providing kids with more choices not only can we create lifelong habits of healthy eating, we can also show our kids that what they eat impacts their health and their planet.
There’s really “Lots 2 Love” about this new approach that recognizes the importance of providing plant-based foods and instilling nutritional practices that will lead to healthier children and a healthier world now and in the future.
Tracey Ritchie is director of education at Earth Day Network.