By now, most schools are back in session. When it comes to performance in reading, writing and arithmetic, nutrition deserves a special focus.
From better grades to regular school attendance, providing healthy, consistent meals for all children through the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program — whether they qualify for food assistance or not — is key to growth, development and success in school.
School nutrition is often questioned and criticized, but I want legislators to understand the upside of these programs.
Kids who participate in the School Breakfast Program have been shown to experience better nutritional intake, improved learning and academic scores, and a lower body mass index. Children who partake in the National School Lunch Program may be less like to go hungry, have improved diet quality and be less like to experience obesity.
Child Nutrition Reauthorization isn't only about school lunch and breakfast, though. Many programs are included, such as the Summer Food Service Program; afterschool snacks and meals programs; and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC. These important programs affect the health and future of our youth, too.
It's time legislators take a deeper look at these programs before casting a vote on Child Nutrition Reauthorization. Looking for an easy way to do this? Go back to school! The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is encouraging members of Congress to visit a school and get the inside scoop on the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program to see the real impact these programs have on our children.
Eat a Meal at School
Step into a school lunchroom. Go through the lunch line and order a meal. Eat in the cafeteria or have breakfast in a classroom. These experiences will let you see the food options, the balance of nutrition offered, the speed at which kids must eat and, most importantly, provide essential information for your vote.
Recently, Rep. Mark DeSaulnier visited with Academy members leading the Mount Diablo Unified School District in Northern California. He ate lunch with the students and saw firsthand that healthy meals are important to the development of children.
Have a Conversation with Staff
Take the opportunity to speak with nutrition service staff. Get to know their challenges and successes. Understand why they do what they do. Many of them reap great personal reward from working with children. If you have an opportunity to do so, speak with teachers, too. They often know the challenges their students are facing at home.
Look a Child in the Eye
Get to eye-level with a child who participates in the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program. When you talk to a child, you can't help but notice their potential. You will understand why we cannot let hunger stand in the way of their success. Who knows, you may be standing in the presence of a future farmer, the next big entrepreneur or our country's future president.
Talk with a Parent
Parents want a better life and more opportunities for their kids. They want success, independence and less stress — for themselves and their children. Don't listen to the negative din about "manipulating the system," or of popular critics of school nutrition. Many schools are getting the program right. We cannot afford to perpetuate a bias against school nutrition. We need to keep moving forward in getting kids the nutrition they need and deserve.
Crunch the Numbers
Time for the math portion of this blog. See if you could feed your family healthy, nutritious meals with the same budget families who qualify for free and reduced price meals live on. Some of your colleagues have done this already, and they know it's nearly impossible.
Don't Lose Sight of What's Important
The details of school nutrition — such as making calorie and nutrient cuts in a fiscally responsible way; watching excess sugar, salt and fat; and creating healthy and eye-appealing meals that kids will eat — do matter. Time, dedication and persistence from schools and districts will fine-tune these details.
However, the details should not hold up our ultimate goals: ensuring that every child who needs to be fed is fed, and that all children in our country, regardless of income, get the best quality nutrition we can give them and the fuel they need to propel their future.
Now It's Your Turn
Are you a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics? Tell Congress you want them to reauthorize strong childhood nutrition programs.