There is no question that America is struggling through a school food crisis.
One in five of our nation’s children live in food-insecure households, lacking consistent access to enough food.
One in three of our nation’s children are overweight or obese, on track to develop diabetes in their lifetime and vulnerable to diet-related diseases that can lead to a lifetime of troubles and medical costs.
And now, we are removing legislation aimed at providing healthier, heartier meals to children in school, only to exemplify the problem.
Under the Obama administration, this issue was being addressed. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, implemented in cafeterias across the nation in the 2012-13 school year, employed a plan to improve nutrition and reduce obesity across federal school food programs.
With more than 31 million children in the United States consuming most of their daily caloric intake at school, school breakfast and lunch programs are a key player in spearheading the food health, insecurity and sustainability issue across the country.
And many schools are making substantial strides, taking the framework and creating quite a movement.
The Berkeley Unified School District has banned all processed foods, hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, refined sugars, refined flours, dyes, nitrates, additives and chemicals.
The Shelby County public school district in Tennessee, which serves more than 110,000 students daily, has connected with the Farm to School movement, which aims to serve healthy meals in school cafeterias and provide agriculture and nutrition education.
The one-of-a-kind Oakland Unified School District has shown it’s possible to build school programs that achieve environmental, health and financial savings. The district has increased fruit, vegetable and legume purchases by 10 percent, and it has reduced meat and dairy purchases but has improved the quality of its meat by buying organic grass-fed beef from local cows. The district has also reduced its carbon footprint by 14 percent, spent 1 percent less per meal, and saved $42,000 in the process.
So yes, certain schools are making progress. However, as a nation, we are backtracking.
The Trump administration has purged many food policy advances, and unfortunately, the administration has taken a bite at the National School Lunch Program. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has relaxed many of the nutrition rules put in place by the Obama administration, with three main takeaways and a lot of people asking why.
First, the Obama-era rules required all breads, cereals and pastas to be at least 50 percent whole grains — shown to be important in helping young minds concentrate in school. This requirement has been lifted, leaving space for more refined grains, which are stripped of nutrient-rich content and have been shown to promote weight gain.
The Obama administration also put in place a plan to gradually reduce salt levels, essentially cutting current salt levels in half by 2022. But alas, progress has been stopped, and the current school lunches, which contain 1.4 grams of salt (about half of what a child should consume per day) will remain the same.
And finally, sugary flavored milk has been implemented back into the menu, so kids are now given access to 1 percent chocolate milk, adding four teaspoons of sugar to a child’s daily diet.
But just because our current president eats these sugar- and fat-loaded foods, doesn’t mean our children should.
Instead of lowering the standards, which seems to be a common theme in current decision-making, we need to fight for our kids’ school lunches. Don’t let your child’s school hand out chemicals as food. Educate yourself and other parents on the incredible momentum of programs such as The Lunch Box and FoodCorps. Get organized and join the movement. We need to highlight the schools that are pushing the boundaries, providing food that simply should be the standard.
To parents, school boards, and President Trump – please don’t let the weight of the nation lie on the shoulders of the next generation.
Mariko Kelly is a junior at Stanford University studying sustainable food and public health.