Do school lunches bring back memories of massive ladels of gravy piled onto heaps of mashed potatoes, processed chicken nuggets and canned fruit?
Well, luckily this picture’s starting to change. President Obama has declared this week National School Lunch Week to shine a light on the school lunch program that began under president Harry Truman — and how it's being moved in a healthier direction. As the mom of a daughter who recently started kindergarten, I'd say it's high time.
Over the years there have been many complaints and critiques about the nutritional value of school lunches, and how they've contributed to a generation of obese, overfed yet poorly nourished kids. In January of this year Michelle Obama led an overhaul of the school lunch program aimed at moving in a healthier direction — less sodium, more whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.
This is all great — we all know fruits and veggies are great for growing bodies — but here at PAN we think we should go one simple step further. Let's serve up fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias without residues of pesticides that are known to harm children's health.
PAN’s What’s on My Food website is a great online tool where you can check out the levels of pesticides found by the USDA in the fruits and vegetables served most commonly in school lunches.
It's disturbing to see that some of these pesticides are neurotoxins, compromising children’s intellects and harming their brain development. Other pesticides found in conventionally grown produce are hormone disruptors, carcinogens and reproductive toxicants. Studies have shown that food is a major source of pesticide exposure for kids.
Pesticides exposure — through food residues and other sources — can have serious consequences for children, as our recently released report A Generation in Jeopardy highlights.
The movement to get pesticides out of school lunches is already well underway. Several Minnesota and Wisconsin schools have moved towards healthy and organic lunches, including extensive salad bars and as much organic food as was possible. Several private lunch providers for schools have also started prioritizing organic and local foods.
Initiatives such as that of the Renegade Lunch Lady chef Ann Cooper helped move thinking about school lunches towards healthier, more diverse menu options, and in some school districts such as Berkeley, CA, pesticide-free food is served whenever possible. Children are encouraged to grow edible gardens where they not only learn the "how to" of growing food organically, but also develop an appreciation of the link between good food and good health.
And the school food revolution is not limited to the U.S. The Naked Chef Jamie Oliver has spearheaded healthier lunch programs in the U.K., and calls for the movement to grow:
"More should be done to spread the message that eating a healthy school meal is a great foundation for a kid's education and future health."
All children deserve the safest, most nutritious food possible. Though much work remains to be done, moms like me can only say “more please” to such encouraging developments.