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How to Vote For a Better School Lunch (Because Childhood Nutrition Matters)

Helping kids eat healthier, later in the day, and with a longer school lunch period can help them do better in school.

More than 300 million students at over 100,000 American schools participate in the National School Lunch Program. The contents of the lunches served under that program leave a lot to be desired. Kids consume about half of their daily allotted calories in their school lunches and those foods tend to be high in fat and sugar and sodium. It’s no wonder. They’re cheap as hell. The average amount allocated for the food in a school lunch? Somewhere around a dollar — and that’s the best case scenario. Even as the obesity rate tripled over the last forty years,  American politicians have continued to divest from healthy food.

Although there is no party line for nutrition and healthy kids, Democrats have historically been more likely to vote for school lunch funding. In many states, however, voting for school lunch is not really a party issue so much as it is a local issue, which is why parents concerned about the dire state of America’s lunchmeats need to familiarize themselves with the top and bottom of the ballot.

Why take the time? Simple. Healthier foods make healthier kids. A study in the Journal of School Health found that fifth-graders who regularly ate fast food did worse on standardized testing and linked the foods to sliding math and reading scores. If kids don’t get some of the vitamins, fatty acids, and proteins that they need, their cognitive development will be affected, making it harder for their brains to grow and develop. And kids who don’t get good lunch also have less energy and struggle to focus on the tasks at hand.

Since school lunch quality is a federal issue, not an issue of state funding, looking on the national level is the best place to start: 

Before You Vote, Scope the 2010 Hunger-Free Kids Act
In 2010, House and Senate passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which reauthorized child nutrition programs and set new standards for the contents of kids school lunches across the country, with bipartisan support. President Obama signed it. The bill requires that whole grains constitute 51 percent of all carbs served to children and that children be required to take at least one fruit or vegetable item. Limitations were also set on the amount of sodium allowed in school lunch on a sliding scale. The 2014 limit was 12350 milligrams of sodium. This year, lunches were supposed to only have around 900 mg of sodium until the Trump administration eased regulations on sodium counts. Restrictions on whole grains were also eased from requiring all carbs to be whole grains to just half. Schools that didn’t meet these requirements were not reimbursed for the lunches they serve.

Since the election of President Trump, the USDA, which is now run by Sonny Perdue, has rolled back regulations on sodium content — seemingly to appease schools that appeared to struggle under the regulations — but the bill remains largely in place if not largely enforced.

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That said, the bill is not a revolutionary piece of legislation. Because the Hunger-Free Kids Act set pretty basic standards, large food conglomerates were able to react to the bill’s passage by creating only slightly less unhealthy products and marketing them to schools.

Frito-Lay debuted a “Smart Snack” version of its Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with less fat and salt and more whole grains. Domino’s created Smart Slice, pizza made with 1/3 less salt, reduced-fat cheese, and 51 percent Ultragrain White Whole Wheat Flour. Pop-Tarts, Doritos, and Rice Krispies Treats also all come in Smart Snack variations sold in schools. While these foods technically meet the federal nutrition standards, many experts still argue they’re nowhere near “healthy.” Additionally, advocates say getting kids hooked on big processed food brands is an even bigger issue than the quantity of salt and sugar.

Still, some politicians, notably Representatives Devin Nunes and Pete Sessions, couldn’t bring themselves to support a basic bill that cleared the Senate unanimously. Guess whether or not these folks took money from lobbyists! This is why parents who care about this issue — and all parents should — need to do a bit of investigating.

Check Out Food Policy Action Organization’s Score Card
FPA, the Food Policy Action group, is a political organization that tracks elected officials and scores them on their votes and political actions regarding food policy. FPA’s mission is to “highlight the importance of food policy and promote policies that support healthy diets… improve food access and affordability… and improve public health.” Though the FPA does not focus solely on school lunches, the organization’s “grades” on food policy tend to be in line with votes on school lunch issues.

Check Out ‘Issues’ on Campaign Websites
As simple as it sounds, doing research on candidates, specifically local candidates, can pay dividends. Candidates generally run on a platform of “issues.” Does your candidate discuss nutrition? Does your candidate discuss healthy kids or the obesity epidemic? Does your candidate discuss ending childhood obesity or dealing with food insecurity or lunch shaming? Vocal support of policy does not always guarantee an outcome — comfort with hypocrisy is a prerequisite for office — but recognition of the problem is a start.

Lunch-Shaming, Lunch Time, Cafeteria Size, and More
Over the past few years, “lunch shaming” has become a hot-button issue in school lunch policy. “Lunch shaming” describes the way that students who can’t afford to buy their school lunches or are behind on school-lunch payment are often treated. In some schools, kids are made to clean up the cafeteria, called out in front of other students, or denied food. At least 15 states have begun drafting or passed legislation in order to end the practice and help parents who are struggling financially cobble together an effective plan to help their kids eat. In California and Oregon, legislators banned practices that identified students with meal debt publicly; Hawaii and Texas established grace periods for meal debt; New Mexico, Virginia, and Maine passed laws on the issue and several other states, including Arizona, Indiana, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Washington, have proposed bills. Each linked state shows what stage the bill as it, who has sponsored it, who has authored it, and where it is in the legislative session. Politicians are currently debating the issue. South Dakota considered such a bill but then tabled it.

Although these bills are not contributing to the caloric or nutritional value of school lunch, they are tackling an important issue for poor kids: getting fed with dignity at school in a way that helps them learn.

Another issue is the time of school lunch. Healthy food is healthy food, but eating it at 10:45 a.m. in the morning can lead to mid-day hunger. It also points to a bigger problem: Early lunch often indicates a small cafeteria and back to back, rushed lunch periods, meaning that kids are eating in a hurry. All of these things can affect their appetite, their hunger levels later on in the day, and their ability to focus. Over 56 percent of New York City schools serve lunch by 11AM. Some lunches are as early as 9AM. It has, to put it bluntly, become absurd.

Besides the fact that some school lunches happen closer to breakfast time than actual lunch, many kids and parents complain that their kids get 15 minutes or less to eat lunch.

Voting for candidates who support increased education funding in general, although that funding is often differentiated from school nutrition policy, could go a long way in school lunch time, duration of the lunch period, and cafeteria size, meaning kids can have the American Academy of Pediatrics-recommended 20 minute lunch time.

Although school lunch is a federal policy and funding issue, public school funding at the state level also affects school time, cafeteria size, lunch schedules, and lunch shaming. Five states — Colorado, Florida, Hawaii (their ballot initiative was recently ruled unconstitutional), North Carolina, and Utah — have education funding revenue on the ballot during the midterms.

Go To School Board Meetings
Even if none of the candidates in your local election have a clear-cut policy on either school nutrition or increasing school funding, attending your school board meetings, following the decisions superintendents make, and keeping up on school allocation news and budgets in your local area is a way to keep an eye on school nutrition policy year-round, not just on election day.

School board officials are elected, not appointed. Although their elections aren’t on the midterm schedule, they are important. Superintendents, administrators, and official figures in your district have more power than anyone in terms of lunch schedules, lunch quality, and lunch shaming. Talk to your elected officials. Interrogate what they think about the way your children are fed. Do they think things are fine? Do they say the money isn’t there? Do they generally vote against increasing funding and access? You can vote them out. Hell, you can replace them yourself, if you want.