What is the Issue?

The American school lunch system has seen a rapid decline in quality of nutrition provided and affordability recently. With these declines, America touts one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the world. In an attempt to counter obesity trends in America the U.S. Congress under the Obama Administration passed the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This act made school lunches significantly harder to provide as it imposed major restrictions, lowering the amount of sodium, fat, and sugar contents in food. The act also forced schools to use whole grains, for students to take one fruit with their lunches, and for portion sizes to be decreased for lunches.

Although the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act was good-natured it proved to be disastrous. Schools reported trash cans overflowing with unconsumed food. “Harvard School of Public Health discovered that about 60 percent of vegetables and roughly 40 percent of fresh fruit are thrown away due to no interest.” While these restrictions were intended to help counter rising childhood obesity rates they have continued to climb. Since the 1980’s childhood obesity rates have increased by over 300%. There were also major issues with portion restrictions. Students reported that they felt hungry and too underfed to perform well in extracurriculars and sports.

Restrictions on foods were not the only provisions of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act though, the act increased access to free or reduced-cost school lunches. In fact, the act increased the amount of children eligible for free or reduced-cost meals by 115,00. However, this part of the act’s provisions presented another problem: lunch shaming. Lunch shaming is when a student who can’t afford lunches at their regular price is either forced to have a job in the cafeteria like mopping the floor or serving fellow classmates, wear a wristband identifying them as part of the free or reduced-price lunch program, or be part of a separate line. While it may seem necessary to identify children in these ways students who have participated in these methods have reported embarrassment and shame. Hence the name lunch shaming.

Aside from lunch shaming, the act has proven ineffective in stopping a rising trend: students carrying school lunch debt on lunch accounts has risen to 76%. Although the act increased funding and access a majority of students are still unable to buy lunches, running them into debt. This presented a major flaw in the act’s provisions. It is impossible for the act to provide free or affordable lunches for all students that need them. Expanding the amount of students covered still doesn’t make a significant dent in the amount of students who need financial aid. Instead of the act lowering the cost of school lunches it tried to give financial aid to a group too large and unstable to provide for. Fluctuation in child poverty rates is too great to be able to effectively adjust for. Not only is there great fluctuation in poverty rates but also an insurmountable amount of children to provide for. 13.1 Million American children lived in food insecure households in 2015. Not to mention the plethora of other American children who struggle to obtain food.

One of the later provisions of the Healthy and Hunger Kids Act was to provide easier access for students and parents to review nutritional facts about meals feed to students. This provision was a step in the right direction but far from a solution. While providing easier access to information for students and parents was a good concept it falls short in educating families about nutrition because the amount of families who access the education is small. Since schools are not required to teach students and parents about healthy eating families fail to receive critical education on how to eat in a healthy manner. The resulting ignorance helps push the ever-growing obesity rate. Showing similar trends of the childhood obesity rate the adulthood obesity rate is also growing, once again placing America high on the list for highest obesity rates in adults.

Why is this Important?

Schools play a major role in public health. It is their job not only to provide students with adequate nutrition to perform well in the classroom but also out of the classroom. Schools not educating children on how to eat well has had major repercussions as obesity rates continue to soar in children and adults, and if the school lunch system is not reformed the American lunch crisis will continue to damage generations to come. An increasing amount of Americans will become obese and an increasing amount of children will be unable to afford school lunches.

What are other countries solutions to this issue?

Japan takes a dramatically different approach to school lunches than anywhere else in the world. Their approach to school lunches while dramatically different from ours has proved extremely successful. Japan has one of the best school lunch programs in the world and for this reason, I have chosen them as a case study.

Japan’s first major difference with the U.S. is that their funding for school lunches stems from local municipalities. In this way has their apportionment of tax money been able to cover needy families more effectively as funds can be specifically directed to the inhabitant-determined needs of the municipality. This is a major difference from U.S. funding where all subsidized meals are funded by the federal government.

Japan’s second major difference is that all of their food is made from scratch in the cafeteria by school cooks. Although it may seem like a lofty goal for workers to make enough meals from scratch for students, 12 Japanese school cooks on average produce 760 meals in a 4-hour span, proving that making meals from scratch is realistic. This allows Japan to have nutritious food that students want to consume. In addition to having school cafeteria workers who actually make food, each school hires a nutritionist to design meals for students and to work with local farmers to be able to use local ingredients. Unlike the U.S., Japan has trained professionals who educate children and make meals that can cater to the specific restrictions and needs of a particular region.

Japan’s third major difference is that education about healthy eating is not optional. Japan values educating their children about healthy eating habits, because of this they have the school nutritionists come to classrooms multiple times a year and teach kids about what they are eating and how to eat healthily. Since good nutrition is so ingrained into Japanese education it sets children up for a healthy lifestyle. Japan, in accordance with their high marks in school lunches, also touts one of the lowest obesity rates in the world.

Japan’s fourth and final major difference with the U.S. is that Japan doesn’t set dietary restrictions that each meal needs to meet. The central government only steps in when there is malpractice in a school’s lunches which almost never happens. Even though Japan does not set major restrictions on foods in school lunches they have one of the lowest obesity rates in the world.

Japan seems to have found the key to excellent school lunches. There differences in funding, food preparation, education, and food standards have all proved successful for them. Although changes would be dramatic the U.S. should learn from the triumphs of Japanese school lunches. We should not fear the change we must go through rather, the implications of where we may go if we don’t change.

What should we do to solve this in the U.S.?

To solve the school lunch crisis in the U.S. we must start with an entirely new plan for a school lunch system. A system that borrows off of the success of Japan but solves the tribulations of our own issue. What we don’t know is what our plan is for success, but what we do know is what we must remove. Our first step in the right direction is repealing the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act. Our first step in the wrong direction is keeping it in place.

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CC BY-SA 4.0 School Lunches: An American Crisis by Evan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

1 Comment
  1. Carmen 3 years ago

    Evan, this is an extremely well written piece. I love how you looked at this issue from many sides, and provided many arguments to support your idea. I also like how you not only talked about the issue but also: why it is important and what we should do about it. It was really cool to see you incorporate what other countries are doing about this issue as well, providing ideas and possible solutions. Awesome job and keep up the good work!

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