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[Photograph ©iStockphoto.com/apomares]

School lunch in the district where I attended K-12 was, frankly, disgusting. I was lucky enough to come from a home where there was enough money and time for me to have a home-packed lunch every day. There were plenty of kids who loved the square sausage pizza and hermetically sealed PBJs, but I'm sure there were also plenty who would have gladly eaten something else had they not been on the free-lunch program. Now, it's pretty clear that no matter if my classmates liked it or not, they shouldn't have been eating the food the school was dishing up.

Schools send a message to children with the foods that are served. The additives, preservatives, and sugar in the meals we are feeding our kids are leading to all-time high rates of childhood obesity and diabetes. Not to mention that there are enough behavioral problems in the classroom without the addition of kids either being A) hungry or B) so hyped up on sugar they can't get their act together for circle time.

The skyrocketing rates of diet-related disease mean school lunch is something everyone should be concerned about whether they have kids or not. These future health costs could seriously influence coming tax rates.

Federal Attention Could Be Tipping Point

This fall, the federal government is scheduled to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act (CNA). This legislation sets rules and funding levels for all the federal child nutrition programs, including the School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Summer Food Service Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

This is an opportunity that comes only once in five years. President Obama has put an extra $1 billion for child nutrition programs, including school food, in his 2010 budget proposal. First Lady Michelle Obama has been talking up children's nutrition from her White House garden. With increased media coverage and both of the Obamas talking about nutrition, kitchen gardens, and farmers' markets, this could be the year we reach the tipping point for getting better food in schools.

There's a lot of information on school lunch out there and a bonaza of groups working to influence the CNA. If you want to get involved or you just want to learn more, here are some things to consider:

All Children Should Have Access to Fresh, Nutritious, Real Foods

Real food is protein, eggs, milk, butter, whole grains, and lots and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Real food is not cotton-candy flavored apples, foodlike substances (such as a processed cheese product), or anything with high fructose corn syrup, food coloring, or trans fats in it.

Provide Money for 'Farm to School' Programs

Best practices would be to get kids eating fresh, real food that is also local and regional when possible. This benefits kids, the environment, farmers, and local economies.

Expand Universal Breakfast Programs

A healthy lunch is what a lot of people are focused on. But what about kids who have nothing in their stomachs when the first bell rings?

Fund Educational Opportunities for Food and Nutrition Education

School gardens and classroom cooking activities will help to ensure a generation of healthy, nutritionally-aware kids who have basic cooking skills and positive relationships with food. Plus skills that schools work so hard to teach--like measuring, fractions, reading, and critical thinking--can all be found in the most basic of cooking activities.

Upgrade Cafeteria Equipment

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[Photograph ©iStockphoto.com/thelinke

Many schools lack the appropriate facilities to actually cook food. They need refrigerators, ovens, stoves, and other equipment like steamers to help them cook meals, not just serve them. Plus, if we need more people in schools doing actual cooking (instead of just reheating food), we've created more jobs.

Get Rid of à la Carte Food, Junk Food, and Fast-Food in Schools

Even if that whole wheat pizza has been made as kid-friendly as possible, most kids (if they have a little extra pocket money) will still go ahead and buy a bag of chips and call that lunch. Sodas and ice cream treats may make the school some extra income, but it's not doing anyone a favor in the long run.

Get the USDA's Conflict of Interest Sorted Out

The USDA regulates the School Lunch Program, but it also helps large agricultural companies sell off their surplus beef and chicken. This commodity food is often packaged by the same agribusiness companies into processed products like chicken nuggets. The USDA currently reimburses schools $2.68 for each meal served to a student who qualifies for a free lunch, but most of this covers labor, equipment, and overhead costs--with less than $1 going toward actual ingredients.

Want to Get Involved and Learn More?

Slow Food USA is hosting a National Day of Action on Labor Day in conjunction with its Time For Lunch campaign. More than 280 public "Eat-Ins" (part potluck, part sit-in) are planned in all 50 states. Thousands of people gathered together will show support for the need to invest in children's health, protect children against food that puts them at risk, and teach children healthy habits. The campaign is asking people to contact their legislators and ask them to allocate only $1 more per day per child for lunch.

Watch the Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann Cooper of the Berkeley School District tell it like it is:

Related

Green Movies, including the film Two Angry Moms, which focuses on mothers taking the school lunch fight into their own hands.

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