Free school lunches for all? PLUS: Ranchers beef up schools

Celebrating National School Lunch Week brings up discussions of Dietary Guidelines, food insecurity and ways to incorporate high-quality beef on the menu.

Amanda Radke

October 16, 2019

6 Min Read
Local Ranchers.jpg
Amy Schafer Pravecek

This week marks National School Lunch Week, and Oct. 16 is National Food Day.

This is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart as I have one school-aged child who has a lot of opinions about what is served on her plate each and every day.

At Scarlett’s school, today is also Bring your Parents to Lunch Day. She picked her dad to be her lunch date, and she is excited to share a meal with him and show him off to her friends in the cafeteria.

Scarlett’s favorites include beef nachos, all-meat pizza and hot ham and cheese. We are fortunate that my daughter’s school has a really talented chef who works hard to stay within the rigid parameters of the Dietary Guidelines and the National School Lunch Program to offer meals that students will enjoy and actually want to eat.

But as a nation, we can always do better for our students. In Japan, school lunches score high for nutrition and acceptance, and as a result, Japan’s kids top global health lists with very low obesity rates.

According to an article published on MSN, “The results are clear in the statistics: Japan has one of the world's lowest rates of infant mortality, and the rate of children aged five to 19 who are overweight or obese is 14.42%, far lower than most other developed countries. The U.S. tops the UNICEF ranking, at 41.86%, with Italy at 36.87% and France at 30.09%.”

Related:6 ways USDA is changing the nation’s school lunch program

The article shares that meals are served in the classroom by the students themselves, where they learn to dine together, clean up together and eat healthy meals, which consist of an equal balance of meat or fish and vegetables.

As the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are developed, it is my hope that we will see less of the tired plant-based recommendations (that read more like propaganda than nutritional advice) and that we’ll trend back toward commonsense nutritional advice — where meat, dairy and eggs were foundational items on the menu because they are packed with nutrients and are excellent ways to fuel developing bodies and minds.

Yet, figuring out what is served on the plate in school cafeterias is only half the battle we face in the United States today.

According to the School Nutrition Association (SNA), nearly 100,000 U.S. schools serve school lunches to 29.8 million students each day. Of those meals, 20.2 million are free lunches, 1.8 million are reduced price (student pays $0.40/meal) and 7.7 million are full price.

The SNA explains that in order to qualify for free or reduced meals, “Children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free school meals. Those with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals. For the 2019-20 school year, 130% of the poverty level is $33,475 for a family of four and 185% is $47,638. Children from families with incomes over 185% of poverty pay full price for their meals. Local school districts set their own prices for paid meals.”

Related:Changes to school lunch program will offer more milk & flexibility

This information weighs on me heavily. The fact that one in five kids goes to bed hungry each night in the United States today, is so incredibly sad. What’s even more troubling is we live in the land of abundance where 40% of the food grown in the United States goes uneaten and ends up in landfills.

I’m not sure what the answer is to fill in the gaps and provide food for those in our nation who are food insecure. However, I do know that kids deserve to eat, even if their parents can’t afford to support them.

Again, on the front end, I hope the next Dietary Guidelines for Americans include recommendations for more nutrient-dense foods like meat, dairy and eggs, so the meals offered to kids at school are packed with satiating protein.

And on the backend, the big question being debated right now is this: should school lunches be free for all? Considering a large percentage of meals are already free or reduced, it wouldn’t be that far of a stretch.

However, I know there are differing schools of thoughts on this topic, and I, myself, have mixed feelings on free lunches. I could not, in good conscious, turn away a child who needs to eat, but I also am inherently skeptical of how well the government can implement and execute a “free” program like this. And we all know that “free” is never really “free.”

Earlier this week, Newsweek reported that a bill introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) would provide up to three free meals per day to all U.S. school children, regardless of family income level.

According to Newsweek, “The Universal School Meals Program Act would eliminate any requirement for families to prove they earn less than 185% of the national poverty level in order for students to be eligible for the meals. It would also remove reduced cost school meals, in favor of making free meals available to all students.

“Studies cited by Sanders and Omar claim that children with access to free school breakfasts have fewer absences and better academic performance, while universal access to free meals is associated with improved student health.”

We could debate the pros and cons of this bill all day long, but instead, I would like to wrap up this blog post with this encouraging story about a group of ranchers who are working hard to ensure tasty and nutritious beef stays on the menu in their local schools.

In South Dakota, two more schools — Hermosa and Custer — join the growing list of public institutions that will offer ranch-raised local beef on the menu with popular items including spaghetti, hamburgers and beef nachos.

According to News Center 1, “Hermosa School is officially implementing the ‘Farm to School’ program. All the beef in the school’s cafeteria will be locally grown and processed. The program is teaching kids to make wise choices for their health and the local economy. Students learn about where their food comes from and learn about how it impacts the agriculture community.

“A whopping 350 lbs. of beef was donated by the Robertson family who owns a ranch in Hermosa. The Robertsons say that there are three other ranchers in the Hermosa area that will also be donating beef, which will provide the students with locally grown beef through 2020.”

I love this proactive effort that ranchers are spearheading to not only serve high-quality beef to their local kids, but also to connect and build relationships with the schools that enables them to promote ag literacy and educate our next generation of consumers about where their food comes from.

So on this National School Lunch Week, I say to these ranchers, “Bravo! Job well done!”

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of or Farm Progress.

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