Reauthorizing and Revamping the Child Nutrition Act

Rochester, Minnesota. Probably you’ve never been there, maybe never heard of it. It’s most known for Mayo Clinic, which, fortunately, was not why I was there this past weekend. I found myself last Saturday wandering through a farmers market of Hmong flower booths, Norwegian jam makers, and would-have-been-doctors turned farmers. That’s how I met Steve, the first farmer since my childhood with whom I was on a first name basis. Steve and his children run an organic farm twenty miles from town. We talked about summer dishes and Slow Food and he invited me to come to his farm. Steve taught me something in that short exchange; we need young people interested in farming and we need a community. These two things went together for Steve and were simply facts, not political statements. It gave me hope that the upcoming Child Nutrition Act could read something like that. We need this. We need it in California and they need it in Minnesota. And we need it to be better.

This September Congress is set to reexamine the Child Nutrition Act and we want you to help. Every five years, Congress gets an opportunity to review and update the Act along with the related programs of the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Afterschool Snack and Meal Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Although the list seems fairly comprehensive, when stacked against the statistics of children in need, it seems insufficient. The United States Department of Agriculture, responsible for administering these programs, reports that 12.6 million children live in households consistently struggling against hunger. That translates to almost 20% of all children under the age of 18 living in poverty and no doubt the numbers have risen under the current economic conditions. The most recent reauthorization sought to reach more children while updating nutritional standards for the meals administered. The Child Nutrition Act, since its inception in 1966, has fed 30 million kids a year. Certainly the Act has done a lot. But we think it can do more.

Before we get into that, take a breath and let those numbers sink in. The problem isn’t just our food policies of course, but food becomes a basic element to solving any poverty-related problem. Thirty million kids are able to get at least one meal a day. That meal helps them focus and succeed in school. Sometimes the connections between a school meal and a good history paper seem stretched but I challenge you to focus on your work after skipping breakfast and lunch. And that’s just one day; many children start the day without having had a complete dinner the night before. Now imagine a meal for every child that goes beyond a caloric count. Imagine a meal that comforts them, introduces them to real food, and connects them to local producers.

Because school cafeterias rely on a combination of federal funding and private income from things like vending machines, achieving such a meal is often difficult and government subsidies make it easy to serve highly processed foods. But the government has the potential to direct its money toward a more positive end, one that would see an increased awareness of food cultures and systems as well as increased health and social benefits for our children. The transformation of school cafeterias to a site of processed production and consumption has had serious impacts, including a hand in helping to triple childhood obesity rates since 1960. (French et al, 2006) The problems are well known but the benefits are less well recognized.

Anthropology scholars define food as one of several “culturally defined material substances used in the creation and maintenance of social relationships.” (Mintz et al, 2002) Food has the power not only to change our bodies but also our way of thinking and relating. Teaching children that eating is an agricultural act that connects to a larger system of producers can create a generation of thinkers able to connect seemingly disparate landscapes and anticipate consequences. That is why Slow Food San Francisco, along with the other U.S. chapters, is asking for this review and reauthorization to be a chance to affirm our commitment to healthy and informed children. We are asking for:

-Increased reimbursement rate for each lunch from $2.57 to a minimum of $3.57 to invest in quality ingredients with greater nutritional value. Though this means a rise in spending it would be significantly offset by cut costs through a decreased reliance on long-distance transportation, increased health of our children, and revitalization of local economies.

-Grants for Farm-to-School Programs and school gardens to help connect children directly to food production and producers. The Farm-to-School organization has already worked with Congress to provide an example of successful local farm networks supplying schools. Programs like farm-to-school or school gardens (check out the Edible Schoolyards at Sanchez, Miraloma and Paul Revere Elementary Schools in San Francisco or Martin Luther King Junior Middle School in Berkeley for an example) have been shown to increase children’s knowledge of and preferences for vegetables. (French et al, 2006)

-Financial incentives to encourage schools to purchase locally grown goods.

-Opportunities for education and training of farmers, cooks, teachers, and administrators to participate in making the National School Lunch Program a success.

We know now that feeding is more than just about total calories. We know this after struggling with rising obesity and childhood diabetes. We know this after facing a problematic and growing health care bill. We know this after pausing to remember the nights we spent around the dinner table as children, overwhelmed with a feeling of being truly loved. We know this after calculating how much oil we ‘eat’ in every grocery-store product. But mostly we know it when we admit our own distance from the farmers-the hands-that care for the tomato we pick up at the store. Try asking someone working at that store about the conditions of the workers who grew those tomatoes. This Act can no longer be about just feeding or educating our children, we need it too. We need to remember what Wendell Berry felt as he said, “the community-in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures-is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.” We must learn, listening to the farmers like Steve, that community and wholeness is what sustains us and our meals must be a product of this understanding. And once we’ve digested this knowledge it’s imperative that we do our part by writing our local representatives, signing the national petition for the reauthorization or by merely just coming to one of the many Eat-In/Potlucks on September 7th to share a meal and be part of what could be quite a movement towards eating what we preach.

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