Serving up wellness in school lunches and snacks

Serving up wellness in school lunches and snacks

July 6th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Hamilton County menus

Three menus from May in Hamilton County middle schools

May 1

• Chicken nuggets & roll or beef burrito

• Seasoned black beans and/or curly fries

• Choose 1 fruit

• Choose 1 milk

May 8

• Crispy chicken sandwich or mac & cheese with ham & roll

• Garden-fresh side salad and/or potato wedges

• Choose 1 fruit

• Choose 1 milk

May 15

• Glazed ham & roll or chicken nuggets & roll

• Sweet potato casserole and/or sweet golden corn

• Choose 1 fruit

• Choose 1 milk

In the fall of 2012, the cost of school lunches increased in public school systems throughout the region as districts worked to incorporate healthier - and more costly - federal meal guidelines, according to local news stories.

That year, the price of breakfast and lunch rose by 25 cents in Hamilton County schools, putting the cost of regular breakfast at $1.50 and regular lunch at $2.75. That amounted to an extra $42.50 for students who eat all 170 or so lunches in a school year - or $85 more a year for a student who eats school breakfast and lunch each day.

This past May, school officials announced another quarter increase for lunches and a half dollar increase for breakfasts. Again, it was blamed, in part, on federal regulations mandating healthier foods.

This isn't just happening here, but in similar scenerios all across America, and national media outlets in past weeks have blistered President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for pushing through healthier eating rules in schools. The going chant is that better food costs more and fewer students buy it because they don't like it, so the costs of these better lunches is increasing for those who do partake of them, including youngsters on free- and reduced-price lunches.

Truthfully, is there anyone among us whose grocery bill and eating-out tab hasn't increased in the past year? If you're still spending the same for your food, please stand up.

Similarly, is there anyone among us whose health care costs, including insurance, hasn't gone up several times during the last decade (except people who recently found cheaper policies through the Affordable Care Act's marketplace exchange)? Much of that health care cost increase has been blamed on obesity, caused by the over-processed, high-fat and sugary foods most of us eat.

So doesn't it stand to reason that in the same way we try to improve the foods we buy and eat, we also should expect schools to do the same for our children?

Oh, but for shame! That over-reaching president and his wife are now into the school lunch menus. Thank goodness, someone is pushing healthier food for our children. In Tennessee, 16.1 percent of adolescents are overweight and another 15.8 percent are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In Georgia those figures are 17 and 12 percent.

As for the cost increase of $42.50 a year per student and another rise next year?

In July 2008, the average U.S. price of a Big Mac meal was $3.57, according to The Economist. In 2012, it was $4.20. In July 2013 it was $4.56. This week, in Red Bank, it is $5.46. Just for the last year, and if you ate a Big Mac meal every day, that's an increase of $365 a year. And the burger, fries and soft drink didn't get any healthier.

Our school menus were given a refit for health beginning in 2004 when then-county Mayor Claude Ramsey started a program called Step One to combat the area's high obesity rate. At the time, county officials said the Step One program partnered with schools and businesses to develop programs to encourage healthy eating.

Then-Hamilton County Board of Education Chairman Chip Baker also suggested educators re-evaluate the contents of school vending machines and cafeteria lunches.

"We've got 40,000 students, and as we shape their minds, we should also be instrumentally involved in shaping their nutritional habits," said Baker, a former children's hospital administrator.

Finally, that is happening, thanks to more outside pushing.

Last Sunday, Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Kevin Hardy wrote that federal regulations are moving beyond the lunchroom and targeting doughnuts, candy bars and cookies sold in schools. The new rules also represent the first time vending machine snacks will be regulated in Tennessee high schools.

The biggest shock and awe, however, comes not from educators and parents applauding better health for youngsters, or from parents worrying about another quarter every day. Instead it comes from educators wondering where replacement school funding will come from. It seems the schools profited from students' vending machine and poor eating habits.

Soddy-Daisy High School, for instance, used to make nearly $40,000 a year from vending machines. Now with a change in recent years to diet sodas and healthy snacks like granola bars and baked chips, the vending machine revenue is down to about $9,000. The money had paid the monthly phone bill and purchased copier paper, according to school Principal Danny Gilbert.

We're sympathetic to school financial needs. But we're also certain that those needs shouldn't be funded at the health and wellness expense of our children.

Thank you, President Obama and first lady. Keep pushing.