Providing Fuel for Learning in the Face of Increasing Food Costs

June 23, 2008

by Erin Murphy, HSC Wellness Intern. Erin is a registered and licensed dietitian. She received her bachelor’s in Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was a dietetic intern at the VA Healthcare System in San Diego and is currently attending the University of Illinois at Chicago where she is a candidate for a Master’s in Public Health in the Maternal and Child Health division. In addition to her work as an intern at HSC, Erin works as a dietitian.at a clinic focused on eating disorders.

MSNBC.com recently reported on the impact of rising food prices on school lunches, which will start showing its mark in some areas around the country as soon as this fall. In the article, students, parents and administrators were interviewed about how they will have to deal with the changing prices of school foods.

A student in the article was quoted as saying, “I won’t be able to eat as much or eat what I usually eat in a regular day. I’ll have to cut down.” When a student says she won’t be able to eat how she normally would on a school day, implying the need to eat less due to monetary concerns, this sounds an alarm on the food security in our country. School should be a place where the food is healthy and available, to give students enough fuel to keep their bodies running and learning throughout the day.

This is why we have the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs, after all.

The National School Lunch program began to ensure the health and well-being of children to grow into healthy adults free of ailments caused by malnutrition. After seeing a relationship between physical deformities and malnutrition in men rejected from the armed forces after World War II, Congress started the National School Lunch program to supply students with meals that provided essential nutrients to grow into healthy adults.

An interesting point to note is that in 1921, Chicago was recognized by the Department of Interior, Bureau of Education as having “…the most intensive school lunch system in America.” This would be an impressive bragging right to still hold to this day.

The scary truth is that school lunches are not always as nutritious and appealing as one would hope. Schools around the country are beginning to address this issue and make it a priority (as seen in the schools attending HSC’s recent wellness workshop), but schools face so many struggles with implementing healthier environments that some schools cannot possibly transition on their own. And now, with the burden of rising food prices, this uphill battle seems to be getting a little bit steeper.

We are seeing numerous problems (financial, sustainable, and varietal) in both what we farm and what we eat in the United States. There is a new motivation for farmers to grow corn in the United States as the demand for ethanol from corn crops increases. What about the need to emphasize and motivate farmers to grow crops that produce a variety of fruits and vegetables to live a healthy life?

The motivation behind farming needs to focus on its original intention: to feed people nutritious food. And our country needs to recognize that meeting the basic needs of its people, ensuring that healthy food is available to all, is simply essential.

Children should not have to worry about receiving enough nutritious food throughout the school day; the National School Breakfast and Lunch program is here to protect them from that situation. If students are expected to perform well, they need to be provided with the fuel to do so. We need to provide a healthy school environment where they can think critically and creatively, provide access to recess and provide healthy meals. A growing body of evidence shows how significantly these simple measures support student learning. Now, we need to ensure that children aren’t denied the supports that make such a difference in their ability to fully engage and succeed at school.