Report Card: Food for Thought
State programs make school lunches healthier
by Phil Gianficaro

See Suburban Life's 2010 Public High School Report Card here.

As far as our area high schools are concerned, a healthy body equals a healthy mind is more than just a popular adage.

When it comes to ensuring that public school students have access to nutritious lunches, the state also leans heavily on another adage: Put your money where your mouth is.

“Walk into any cafeteria today and you’ll see there’s been an upswing to ensure that students get nutritious meals,” says Leah Harris, deputy communications director for the State of Pennsylvania. “We know the kind of impact nutrition has not only on health but academic achievement. Studies have shown a connection between child nutrition and learning. Providing better lunches for our students is a priority in Pennsylvania.”

One of several programs helping Pennsylvania students eat better in school is the National School Lunch Program. This federal and state reimbursement program requires participating schools to serve lunches that meet federal nutritional standards. In exchange, schools receive cash subsidies and donated commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each such meal they serve. Schools must also offer free or reduced-price lunches to children from low-income families.

Among the guidelines set by the NSLP is restricted access to foods and drinks that do not appear on the USDA food pyramid, like candy, chewing gum, carbonated beverages and water ices that do not contain 100 percent fruit juice.

“They’re called competing foods,” Harris says. “They’re competing against healthy food as students make their choices.”

Another state program aimed at making school lunches healthier is the Farm to School Program, which provides grants to school districts to grow vegetable gardens on school property. The food is then incorporated into the schools’ lunch menus. The program also gives students an educational and experiential understanding of the connection among agriculture, nutrition and health.

Providing students with healthy lunches isn’t just a good idea, it’s critical. In March, the health advocacy organization Trust for America’s Health released its annual report on obesity rates nationwide. Among the more disturbing findings was that 15 percent of all children in Pennsylvania are not just overweight, but obese.

“The state understands there’s a clear connection between a child’s diet and his physical well being,” Harris says. “The programs that the state is involved in are designed to make sure students are eating healthy. For some children from poor families, the school lunch is oftentimes their healthiest meal of the day. We are doing our best to ensure that their school lunch is balanced and nutritious.”

Phil Gianficaro is an award-winning writer based in Doylestown.