Poor kids may be getting a better lunch, but less dinner

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More fruits, vegetables and whole grains in school lunches - what could be wrong with that? Quite a bit if the U.S. House of Representatives passes a revamped school lunch bill. The legislation would give schools more money for lunches, but would do so by cutting funding for food stamps.

That equation is raising the eyebrows of some advocates for low-income families, causing them to wonder: are we robbing Peter to pay Paul?

Record numbers of Illinois residents are on food stamps - nearly 780,000 families by the last count. It's a trend nationwide. Nearly one in every seven adults are on food stamps, and that number is higher for kids, who generally share a greater burden of poverty.

Chicago Public Schools says that 85 percent of its students receive free or reduced price lunch. As a state, Illinois ranks 4th in the number of kids eligible for free lunch, with 661,335 children eligible, plus another 113,863 who could get reduced price lunch, according to statemaster.com. Those numbers are growing since the recession, with the demand for free lunches growing between 5 and 8 percent in Illinois.

So more families are having trouble putting food on the table, and more kids are signing up for free lunches because their parents can't afford that meal either.

The lunches students are currently getting are often filled with overly-processed, nutritionally deficient, high-calorie foods. But to make them more nutritious, families will have to cut what's spent on other meals. Does that make sense?

The bill has passed the Senate and may be taken up by the House in the next few days. While funding it would mean stripping money from food stamps, the substance of the bill itself is noble. For one, the secretary of agriculture would now have the authority to establish nutrition standards for foods sold in schools, even in vending machines. The bill would require schools to up the nutritional content of what they serve, increase the amount Uncle Sam gives schools for higher-quality meals and allow kids on Medicaid to qualify for free school meals without filling out an application.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says all of this is necessary, but doing so by cutting food stamp funding, "would reduce the availability of nutritious food at children's homes in order to provide those very same children nutritious options at school."

So while Timmy may get a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread and a freshly-picked apple for lunch, he's going to have Coco Puffs for breakfast (perhaps even dinner) with a glass of Sunny-D. I didn't read any objections from the food industry in the New York Times article, so I'm guessing that big companies are hoping that if kids can't buy their food in vending machines and get it plopped onto their lunch tray, they'll still be eating it for breakfast and dinner because it will be all their parents can afford.

Getting Congress to pass these reforms is no simple feat. But if the goal of healthy lunches is to get kids to make healthy choices and help stem the obesity epidemic among our children, can that be achieved by cutting the food they get at home? As far as I know, weight gain is still the sum of calories in minus calories out. Doesn't much matter where and when those calories are consumed.

Photo credit: Jeff Sandquist

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  • This is sad. Children need calories to grow. If they're eating low-cal 'health' foods at school and getting next to nothing at home they will be even more malnourished.

  • I just wish that these little ones had a better food system for their future. With so much processed stuff out there - how can they be expected to understand the value of fresh whole foods? I am glad they are getting nutrition at school, but yes, they need affordable healthy foods at home too! I am so thankful that our kids love their fruits, veggies and whole grains like Kamut Wheat - even though it is hard to spend nearly double on all these. It is worth it for sure!

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