September 14, 2006

Prof: Federal Funding to Blame for Students’ Dietary Problems

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Look out the window on a trip up the Interstate, and you’ll begin to understand why Americans are overweight. “McDonald’s: 2 miles” is a familiar sight to most American travelers, a testament to America’s fast food culture and a sign that American health standards are on the decline. Predictably, America’s youth have inherited their parent’s penchant for fast food consumption, ranking among the most overweight juvenile populations in the world. With a McDonald’s on every corner, it indeed seems difficult for American kids to resist the temptation of a highly processed Quarter Pounder.
Fast food, though, is not the only explanation for childhood obesity. Recently, a more unlikely culprit has emerged in the form of the public school cafeteria. Across the country, increasing production costs and inadequate federal funding have compounded to create a dietary crisis in public school lunch programs, and many people are clamoring for a change.
Jennifer Wilkins is one of those people. A senior extension associate in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell, Wilkins has been outspoken in her criticism of the federal government and in her demand for a solution to the growing dietary crisis in America’s public schools. In a recent article published by the Times Union, Wilkins outlined the current federal funding allocations available to public schools participating in the National School Lunch program and explained exactly why those allocations are severely deficient.
“Schools in the National School Lunch program,” Wilkins wrote, “receive $2.40 in federal subsidy for a free lunch, $2 for a reduced-price lunch and 23 cents for every full price lunch.”
The bottom line, Wilkins went on to explain, is this: after factoring in labor, supplies and other necessary overhead, schools are left with only $1 to spend on each actual lunch served. America’s students, she argued, are being shortchanged.
In an interview with The Sun, Wilkins explained that the federal government has placed U.S. public schools in an unenviable position; strapped for cash, schools are still expected to provide a healthy, nutritious lunch to their students. Without a serious increase in federal funding, Wilkins argued, those expectations are impossible to meet.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s difficult for schools to accomplish what they’re expected to accomplish with the amount of money that they have,” Wilkins said.
In light of the inadequacies in federal funding, many schools have turned to alternative means of financing their respective lunch programs. One popular way to increase revenue has been the introduction of à la carte items. À la carte programs are funded by individual schools, and put foods on sale that can’t be found on the regular cafeteria menu. Revenue generated from the sale of a la carte items goes directly to the school, and can be subsequently used to finance underfunded programs like school lunches. À la carte, though, has a negative side: food sold though the program is typically unhealthy, thus adding to the problem created by a restrictive budget.
Wendy Wolfe, a research associate in Nutritional Sciences at Cornell and a contributor to the Ithaca School District Wellness Policy, explained why à la carte programs do more harm than good for U.S. public schools.
“In response to low federal funding, schools have ended up selling more a la carte items to boost income,” Wolfe said. “However, there are minimal guidelines as to what those [a la carte] foods could be. Aside from carbonated drinks and candy, they could be anything.”
Public school students purchasing food à la carte, therefore, are just as unhealthy as students who fill up on the $1 lunches available at the end of the cafeteria line.
Locally, the Ithaca School District has worked hard to resolve the public school health crisis. Prior to the start of the academic year, the school board passed a basic wellness policy that included everything from nutrition guidelines to physical fitness expectations. Still, as Wolfe explained, the board has a long way to go.
“The real work is yet to be done,” Wolfe said. “À la carte items need to be healthier.”
Additionally, Wolfe argued that, with an increase in federal funding, such items could be eliminated altogether.
“The extent to which it [a la carte] became so prevalent was to increase revenue,” Wolfe explained. “With more federal funding, it would never have become so widespread.”
In response to the bleak portrait drawn by Wolfe and others, the Ithaca School District continues to try its hand at improving lunch programs at local public schools. In an interview with the Ithaca Journal, Dale McLean, director of food services for the Ithaca City School District, said that compressed meat products will be off the menu at Ithaca area schools this academic year, and a host of healthier alternatives will be available for Ithaca public school students.
“The key is offering choices for children,” McLean explained. More changes, McLean continued, can be expected in the future.