(NaturalNews) We know that fatty processed foods aren't good for our schoolchildren, but getting more locally grown foods on the cafeteria menu can be difficult. The economic crisis may change that. Schools now have less money to spend while at the same time farmers find it increasingly expensive to transport their crops to distant markets. Connecting school lunch programs directly to local farms is good for everyone. Schools save money, farmers find nearby buyers and student health improves.
According to the "2008 School Lunch Report Card" developed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), the foods served in today's schools are too high in saturated fats and cholesterol, and too low in the dense nutrients offered by whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. While there have been improvements, the PCRM encourages schools to make significant changes to halt the rampant increases in obesity, hypertension, early-onset diabetes and other chronic diseases in young people.
Change is difficult, in part, because of the structure of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Created over 60 years ago, this program serves in excess of 30 million meals each school day. All schools participating in the NSLP must follow certain nutritional guidelines and offer free or reduced price meals for low-income children. In return, these schools are provided with subsidies and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) commodity foods. These foods include millions of pounds of animal products such as pork, beef and cheese. Fruits and vegetables make up less than 5% of the allotments. Approximately half of USDA commodity foods in the form of popular prepared items including chicken nuggets and hot dogs. The days of cooks in the school cafeteria making lunch from scratch are largely gone. The ease of heating commodity foods, or contracting with a provider for meals prepared with these foods explains why school districts are reluctant to alter such an efficient system.
But change is coming. It isn't environmentally sustainable to rely on centralized systems of food procurement. And the evidence that typical school cafeteria meals are detrimental to our children continues to accumulate.
Cardiologist Arthur Agatston headed a two-year study that found enhancing the nutritional quality of school food improved student academic performance. Researchers followed 1,197 elementary pupils who participated in the Healthier Options for Public Schoolchildren program for low-income students. Agatston told U.S. News & World Report, "Many kids—while overfed—are literally malnourished…This wasn't a diet. We weren't having them count calories or anything like that. We just offered kids wholesome food—meaning there was less saturated fat, no trans fats, and more whole grains and fruits and vegetables."
Agatston and his research team reported their findings at a recent Obesity Society meeting. The results? Not only did the students lower their blood pressure and weight, they also benefited from significant increases in math scores.
Another study, completed in Canada in 2003, surveyed 5,200 elementary students and their parents. Variables such as height, weight, sociodemographic indicators and diet quality index were referenced to a standardized literacy assessment. An association was found between nutrition and academic performance, concluding that students were significantly more likely to have poor assessments when their diets were of decreased quality.
Numerous studies indicate that inadequate or compromised nutritional quality is linked to poor attendance, lower test scores and fewer grades completed. Improved nutrition has a positive effect on behavior and overall achievement.
Fortunately, there are many ways to get fresh, locally grown food into your schools.
Community Food Security Coalition works to create communities that are self-reliant through growing, processing and selling food sustainably. They offer Farm to College resources which link colleges and universities to local growers. Their site provides examples of successful programs. They work across the country through workshops and conferences. www.farmtocollege.org
Farm to School aims to develop a comprehensive network of schools and farms. Nearly 9,000 schools are currently participating in these programs. The extensive site offers listings of ongoing programs, clear steps to organizing your own school, information on grants, a newsletter and more. www.farmtoschool.org
Food Routes Network focuses on awareness of local food, from the seed to the table. The site includes resources for Farm to School as well as Farm to College programs, with many links including a USDA report, "How Local Farmers and School Food Service Buyers are Building Alliances" and Public Citizen's "Stop Food Irradiation School Lunch Organizing Kit." www.foodroutes.org
Oxfam America's Buy Local Food and Farm Toolkit: A Guide for Student Organizers is a hands-on DIY plan to help college students link local growers to their food service programs on campus. www.sustainabletable.org/schools/docs/food_f...
Sustainable Table promotes bringing fresh local food into the schools and reawakening each child's connection to the land. Their resources include 11 tips for getting organic foods into schools, information on starting a school gardening program, lesson plans and a forum. www.sustainabletable.org/schools
About the author
Laura Weldon lives on an organic farm and believes in bliss. Learn more about her book "Free Range Learning" by visiting at www.lauragraceweldon.com