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Lunch trayHealthy school lunches support students to learn and grow. Pediatrician Nadine Burke and author Michael Pollan highlight the need to transform school lunch.

Why do we need to transform school lunch?

Nadine Burke: Schools supply lunches that routinely have high-sugar and high-fat foods, which makes it hard for kids to concentrate and learn in school. On top of that, the food can lead to health problems. Asthma is the number-one reason for missed school days in the United States. The heavier you are, the more likely you are to have asthma. Yet our schools often give kids food that makes them more likely to be overweight and obese.

Michael Pollan: The school lunch program in America, by and large, is a disposal system for surplus agricultural commodities. Farmers in the industrial food system grow too much of a certain product. The government buys it from them to support their prices and their welfare, and then dumps it on schools. The result is often food that is fatty, high in salt, and highly processed. Because of budgetary problems, many school cafeterias no longer have kitchens; they have giant microwaves. So, they’re utterly dependent on processed food.

SaladWhat challenges do schools face?

Michael Pollan: Government policies make it hard to change school lunch. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules dictate the minimum amount of calories, but not the maximum amount of calories. Why is that? When the school lunch program started, the problem was under-nutrition. The program was designed to deal with the fact that some children weren’t getting enough food at home. The sheer abundance of calories was a good thing.

Now we’re in an era where obesity, or over-nutrition, is a bigger problem than under-nutrition, yet the school lunch program hasn’t kept up. It’s hard for schools to buy local and whole foods. There are rules that say they have to take the lowest bidder, which is often not the local farmer. It’s the big producer. Those rules have to be changed. Even if schools wants to serve hamburgers made from local, grass-fed beef, it’s hard to justify that economically if the government is giving them crummy industrial beef.

Fortunately, there’s a revolution going on in school lunch, and efforts to change it. The program has got to be changed both at the local level, with parents and children insisting that they want better food in their schools, and at the federal level, with the way reimbursements are done.

Nadine Burke quoteHow can we teach students about good food?

Nadine Burke: It’s important to teach kids what healthy portion sizes are. Then, we should offer healthy choices that taste good. Nutritious food doesn’t have to taste bad. We’re talking about our kids’ futures. Our schools need to be teaching our kids how to eat healthy. One of the most important lessons that you can teach a child is how to care for themselves over the long term, over a lifetime. Good nutrition is an absolute basic part of that.

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