Currently, there exists an alarming trend of childhood obesity in the US and it does not seem like it will slow down anytime soon. With about 1/3 of children aged 6-19 years old overweight or obese, the US government finally decided it was time to do something about it. Controlling school lunches for children by the government has long been a debate topic as it implies that the government can restrict personal or lifestyle habits. With many opposing such ‘Big Brother’ hold over the average American, school lunches has been a difficult measure to oversee and control.
However, the statistics do not lie. According the CDC, from 1980 to 2008, childhood obesity increased from 6.5% to 19.6% for 6-11 year olds, and 5% to 18.1% for 12-19 year olds. Obese children are at a heightened risk during their remaining adolescent years and well into adulthood of developing cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, hyperlipidemia, increased chance of a heart attack as well as asthma, type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea. The psychosocial risks such as low self-esteem, depression can also persist into adulthood with obesity. With such detrimental risks, it becomes rather interesting to also know that all these risks could be avoided as childhood obesity could very well be controlled and prevented. As Michelle Obama viciously campaigns for her Let’s Move program, her initiative to slow down childhood obesity, it becomes important as Americans and as future parents to know that according to a recent research, kids who eat lunches served by their schools are 60% more likely to become overweight or obese than kids who bring lunches from home. However, the road to make school lunches healthy has not been easy, or successful.
Though a federal law has just passed allowing USDA to limit the number of calories served at every school meal and broaden variety of fruits, vegetables, offer more skim and reduced fat products and limit sodium consumption, the funding to do so has been unmatched with the goal. It costs more for schools to provide fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein to children. Because National School Lunch Program (NSLP) requires “participating schools to provide nourishing meals for all pupils”, when students show up with not enough money in their lunch account, they receive an “alternative lunch” while the kids who can pay, pay extra in order to compensate. US Agriculture Department says about “2/3 of 5 billion meals served under the program each year are free or sold at a reduced price” and that about “60% of public school districts raised lunch prices in 2009”; both statistics indicate that the schools do not enough money to support this new federal school nutrition regulation
The inability to pay for school lunches exists on 2 scales; the government needs more funding to support the now more expensive healthier lunches, and many families simply cannot afford school lunches at full price. Due to recent economic depression, many families are now struggling to pay regular price lunches for their kids, thus leaving schools to resort to serving “alternative lunches” instead. Because no school wants to turn hungry students away, when the students lack enough money in their lunch account, most schools dish out a grilled cheese or some cheese and crackers with milk and occasional fruit, to students who cannot pay. Though it is the humane thing to do, it is not the most economical as these schools are now thousands of dollars in debt in order to feed the poor students. However, the tab for school lunches can be picked up by the government if more and more financially challenged families declare their children to be on the free or reduced-priced meal.
However, the additional costs could be picked up by the federal government if more families enroll in free or reduced-priced school lunches. But many families are unaware of their eligibility for such programs and the significant “stigma associated with participation” propagates the distribution of ‘alternative lunches’. These lunches, offered in most states, are distributed to students who cannot pay and consist mostly of basic food items such as a grilled cheese and a juice or milk with an occasional fruit. No school wants to refuse food to a hungry child, however, with so many schools in debt across the country due to students’ inabilities to pay full price for lunches, sometimes cheese and crackers are all is available to a hungry student without further starving the school budget. The problem now becomes that of the families— the schools don’t want to deprive the students of food, but the schools also cannot afford to give them anything other than the most basic lunch if the students cannot pay. It would be unfair for schools to take money from academic funding and transfer into lunches simply because some students or their families care more about their reputations than to enroll their kids in free or reduced-priced lunch programs. Added to this burden is the new federal regulation that will make school lunches healthier, but probably more expensive. The struggle to fight childhood obesity just got even harder.
The dilemma actually exists on both sides: the government needs to increase its funding towards school lunch programs if they want to provide healthier lunches to students filled with whole grains, fresh produce and lean meats. The eligible families need to enroll their kids into free or reduce-priced lunches so that their children will be served real lunches as opposed to the meager “alternative lunches” and that the families who can pay full-price do not have to pay more in order to compensate for the total price. However, the ultimate goal is hopefully shared on both sides; to provide nutritional and healthy lunches for students and to reduce the incidence and prevalence of a preventable disease—childhood obesity—among the age groups most vulnerable and susceptible.
I believe school lunches as well as vending machines in schools contribute greatly to the rise in childhood obesity in the recent decades as few children can resist buying fries, burgers and candy with their parents’ money and not get caught. However, I also believe that it is also not entirely the school’s nor the government’s fault that childhood obesity has reached new heights—parents need to be educated on how to lead and model healthy lifestyles for themselves and for their children, and understand the vulnerability of their children to fast food/candies, and how they contribute greatly to increased health risks. While the children may have easier access to unhealthy foods at school, they should also be made aware at home about the risks of such foods and should learn from their parents, that they should stay away from them, or at least consume in moderation. I believe that the government should have a role in this epidemic as it is currently affecting 1/3 of the population, but at the same time, I also think in order to fully address and prevent the statistics from rising, it is also necessary to raise awareness among parents about the dangers of childhood obesity as no single party is responsible for this disturbing statistic.