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School Lunches

February 8, 2010

The NYTimes reported today that the Obama administration will be leading an effort to reform policies around food available in school settings. Beyond the current ban of sweets & sugary treats in school breakfasts and lunches, the new legislation would mandate that schools rid their vending machines, PTA-sponsored carts, and other points of sale of unhealthy snacks, desserts and drinks. Unsurprisingly, students and administrators in the article seem wary of the change.  This legislation seem revolutionary to some, but similar federal legislation has been proposed in the past, and already exists at the state level. Similarly, in September 2007, schools in Great Britain banned “confectionery such as chocolate bars, chocolate coated or flavoured biscuits, sweets and cereal bars,” and table salt from the school cafeterias.  The Food and Nutrition Services division of the USDA reported that in November 2009, 31.9 million students participated in the public school system’s school lunches and 11.8 million in the breakfast program.

NYU students who have taken Community Health and Medical Care at the Wagner or Steinhardt Schools will probably remember Marion Nestle’s Food Politics from the syllabus. In this book, Nestle raises the incentive opportunities that beverage and snack companies offer schools in need of fundraising. Today’s Times article illustrates that major beverage companies will probably not protest (read: lobby) against the proposed legislation because these companies have acquired and developed juice and water options over the years. The mix of products offered in schools may change, but Coke and Pepsi are still likely to be the featured vendors.

But will it matter if the schools ban the sale of these goods on campus? As I go to work in the morning in Manhattan, I see children at the deli and the coffee shop purchasing everything from jumbo muffins to Cheetos. The same sight was part of my daily routine when I lived in San Francisco – the Walgreen’s that my bus passed each day had a line out the door (the security guard would only let a handful of students in at a time) by 7:30 am. Urban students, unlike their suburban counterparts, are faced with many off-campus opportunities each day to buy their own snacks to supplement school meals. And, as the NYC government and others have pointed out, there is a dearth of healthy food options for those in low-income areas. Further, as a January NYTimes commentary notes, schools are becoming accustomed to having parents provide “snacks” at every opportunity, whether it’s a sporting event or a play rehearsal or Heritage Day. The proposed legislation will exempt birthdays and classroom events from the sugary foods ban.

Given the challenges to overcome, will school meals ever improve the point of making a difference in the health of the students? Marion Nestle thinks so.

Do you?

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