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Back in the fall of 2012, all schools that were part of the USDA school meal program were required to follow new regulations. On paper, it seemed like a big improvement. But in the lunchroom, sometimes it’s hard to tell. One of the biggest challenges is that students often have many different food choices, and despite the new regulations, unfortunately not all of them are healthy, even if they do meet the guidelines. We all know that healthy food is important, and here are five reasons why ALL food served in schools should be healthy:

1. Eating healthy is an important life lesson.healthy school lunches

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Kids go to school to learn, and part of what they learn about is healthy food and nutrition. Even if what they learn about nutrition isn’t ideal due to the food industry’s influence on what is taught, the food served at school should set a healthy example. Students may like unhealthy foods, but the hypocrisy is not lost on them when schools serve food that is not healthy.

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Just like students who go home and tell their parents not to smoke because of what they learned at school, students become advocates for healthy eating at home when they learn about and experience healthy eating at school – we have seen this happen with the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack programs and also our Cool School Food program, which provides healthy plant-based entrees at school. Learning about healthy eating is a life lesson that not only helps each student, but the ripple effect has a positive impact on their families and generations to come.

2. Schools should support good health.

For kids whose parents feed them healthfully at home, schools should not undermine the parent’s good efforts. In homes where students do not have access to healthy foods, schools should be a place where students can count on eating healthfully – this is important because some children may be eating more than half of their calories at school on school days.

3. Tax dollars shouldn’t fund disease and environmental degradation.

Our tax dollars pay for school food. School food menus are full of processed foods and animal-protein-based meals, the very foods that have been proven to cause heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, as well as overweight and obesity. In addition, animal agriculture requires significantly more water and other resources than the plant-based counterparts and is also a major cause of global warming. I don’t want my tax dollars spent on unhealthy food that contributes to suffering and disease, and associated health care expenses, as well as the consequences of environmental degradation.

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4. Lunchtime should not be a multiple choice test.

Sixty-eight percent of all adults in the U.S. are now overweight or obese. If grown adults can’t make the right choices to keep themselves healthy then how can we expect children to choose healthy items when there are also unhealthy “favorites” available as well? Schools are in the unique position of being able to set an example and help students develop good habits early in life. Despite the latest regulations for healthy school food, there is still plenty of unhealthy school food available for students to choose from.

While five components of food must be offered, students only have to take three. One must be a fruit or vegetable, but unfortunately, 100% juice can count as a fruit. In addition to the main “meat/meat alternate” component of the meal, students often have several other alternative choices on the menu every day, including bagels with cream cheese, bagels with melted American cheese, cheese sandwiches, or even chicken nuggets or pizza. So it’s not unusual to see a child get a half-white bagel and cream cheese and a carton of apple juice every day. That meal is considered “nutritious” and meets the regulations, yet it completely lacks fresh, nutrient-dense foods.

Fruits and vegetables are supposed to be occupying ½ the plate but if you visit a school cafeteria you will find that to be a rare occurrence. It’s not that kids won’t eat healthily, but having to choose between chicken nuggets and a homemade healthy entrée may be too much of a challenge for them.

5. Eating healthfully makes a difference – not just in the future, but now.

Eating habits are established early, and eating healthfully is a life skill. But it’s not just about avoiding heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer in the future; it’s about ensuring that children are healthy now. That means when students are in school, providing them with nutritious, healthy meals that enable them to focus and maximize their potential and to support a healthy immune system to keep them in school, not homesick. Healthy food equals better health, better grades, and better behavior.

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