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Tough times in the cafeteria

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These are challenging times for people who run school lunch programs. A national TV show this spring took on the school food system.

Leaders in Washington are debating how much money the country should spend on childhood nutrition. And new concerns about nutrition are an eerie echo of the origins of the public school lunch. Julie Grant reports.

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Julie Grant, May 13, 2010

The national school lunch program started after World War II because the military was concerned. Many young men had been rejected from the draft because of childhood malnutrition.

Kevin Concannon is undersecretary of food and nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

He says today former military generals are getting concerned again. That’s because many 17-24 year olds aren’t healthy enough to serve.

"Twenty-seven percent of them in that age group are so overweight, they don't qualify for military service."

And part of the reason so many have gone from being malnourished from not enough food, to malnourished from too much junk food, is the school meals program.

Everyone from first lady Michelle Obama to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is pushing for improvements in the foods served in schools. Chef Oliver spent three months in Huntington, West Virginia for his program Food Revolution – because it was dubbed the unhealthiest city in America.

In this scene, he started by working in an elementary school cafeteria – and goes with one of the workers to check out the freezer.

"The freezer was just an aladdin's cave of processed crap....So this is pizza for breakfast, and then they have it for lunch tomorrow?"

"I would not ever feed that to my kids, ever."

"I’m not getting a good feeling about this..."

"Do you honestly think that we could go from raw state every day?"


In his efforts to improve the food in this one school district, we see how many barriers there are to doing something as simple as getting kids to eat vegetables and fruits.

There’s resistance from cafeteria workers, the school administrators, the parents, and the kids.

When Oliver serves roasted chicken instead of chicken nuggets, most of it ends up in the trash. And when the schools do start using his menus, more and more parents send their kids in with brown bag lunches – many filled with candy and potato chips.

Kevin Concannon at the USDA says the government cannot do anything about the lunches parents send with their kids. But it can do something about the food served by schools. And he says there is a big push right now to serve healthier foods.

"The direction we're going in is more fruits, more vegetables, less fat, less sugar, less sodium."

But, there’s a catch:

"Better, healthier foods cost more."

So President Obama is proposing adding 10-billion dollars to school food programs over the next decade. The Senate is looking at adding a little less than half that – 4.5 billion. Either way, Concannon says it’s more money than has ever been added to the program.

"It's no longer a political climate of 'I'm OK, if you're OK.' I think it's more a realization that this affects health costs, this affects national security, and many of these health conditions are preventable if we get people to eat healthier and to exercise."

Chef Jamie Oliver agrees more money is needed to provide healthier foods in schools. But right now, he says the government is part of the problem. It offers schools cheap processed food for almost nothing.

"The donated food that you get that is so cheap that you can't resist it. And it's from the government. The government is saying 'We want change.' 'Here, why don't you have some really lovely, cheap processed food."

The USDA says the government food being sold to schools has improved over the years. But many people say it hasn’t improved enough to ensure that most U.S. students are offered nutritious meals every day.

For The Environment Report, I'm Julie Grant.

Copyright 2010, The Regents of the University of Michigan, Used with permission.

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