Wednesday January 30, 2013

In the category of no good deed goes unpunished comes the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, whose aim was to curb child obesity and related lifelong health problems by mandating nutritious options, specifically more fruits and vegetables, through the National School Lunch program. Anecdotal news reports across the nation of large numbers of students brown-bagging it to avoid having to eat healthy are given credence by the plight of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, where the absence of profitable junk foods has contributed at least in part to a $37,780 deficit in the school lunch program halfway through the school year.

"Now [lunch] is worse-tasting, smaller-sized and higher-priced," complained a Wisconsin student to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel earlier this school year. Students and parents have complained in news stories that the food is inadequate to get student-athletes through school and post-school practice. The National Governor’s Association has criticized the funding for the program as "inadequate."

For the SBRSD, junk food -- potato chips, ice cream, sugared beverages -- had produced an average profit margin of 70 percent, compared to an average profit margin of 20 percent currently (A smaller student population may be a factor: Eagle, Jan. 29). Raising the price of school lunches to reduce the deficit would only encourage more students not to buy lunch at school. Laying off cafeteria staffers doesn’t get at the root of the problem while putting people out of work in a tough job market.

The program, closely associated with first lady Michelle Obama, offers federal subsidies and food through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Unless the SBRSD’s situation is rare, which is unlikely, those subsidies may have to be increased. Failing that, a compromise may have to be reached that reduces the high standards of the worthy program.

The reality, however, is that schools can only do so much -- nutritionally and educationally -- without the support of parents. If they don’t insist that their children eat right at home and at school, the nation’s child obesity problem will quite literally grow larger -- along with problems related to diabetes and heart disease.