Keep healthy lunches on school menus

A salad with beans and avocados is a healthy lunch for schoolkids.
A salad with beans and avocados is a healthy lunch for schoolkids. tljungblad@kcstar.com

Obama administration officials are trying to get Congress to endorse fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other healthier food options for school cafeteria breakfasts and lunches for kids.

At stake is the reauthorization of the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, which mandates better nutritional standards. But time is running out. The law that has made meals at schools healthier for millions of students expires Sept. 30.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Star on Tuesday that the law is working. A study by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity showed that students are eating more nutritious foods and throwing away less of their lunches because of the healthier standards.

Also, more than 95 percent of schools report that they are meeting the updated nutrition standards, which include low-fat dairy products, lean proteins and less sugar, fat and sodium. “It’s going to make a difference in (kids’) health and well-being,” Vilsack said.

The opposition isn’t committed to the same recipe. Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas is chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. The committee heard from school nutrition experts at a May hearing. Roberts favors a redraft of the law that increases efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility in school meal standards. “We need to improve the administration of these programs to reduce errors but do so in a way that does not layer additional federal bureaucracy and overreach on those feeding hungry schoolchildren,” Roberts said.

The School Nutrition Association adds that the standards are costing schools dearly in fewer students choosing school lunches each day.

But they’re overlooking what’s good for the health of America’s children. First lady Michelle Obama has pushed for reauthorization of the law because it ties in with her Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the percentage of children ages 6 to 11 who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2012. The percent of teens who were obese jumped from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent.

Because many students get breakfast and lunch at school, reauthorizing the act can affect for life Americans’ eating habits. It helps more people turn away from salty, fatty fast foods as well as vending machines filled with junk food and sugary drinks.

Congress should reauthorize a law that’s good for the health of children.