The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

September 14, 2012

Goal of school lunch program is to improve eating habits

Point Blank column

By John Blankenship


You could say that the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has turned itself into a hot potato, at least figuratively if not literally.

And the controversy stemming from West Virginia’s efforts to improve your child’s eating habits has catapulted the state into the national limelight.

Childhood obesity, meanwhile, seems to be the culprit. Apparently some people think students are gaining too much weight on their school lunches.

That could be true, but it’s probably more likely that children are gaining excess weight on the diet their parents allow them to get away with at home or at fast-food restaurants.

Here are some of the facts about school lunches in West Virginia and in the United States as a whole:

The NSLP is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the National Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946.

Each day public schools across the state of West Virginia serve more than 180,000 students healthy, well-balanced meals through the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs.

Similarly, the goal of the NSLP is to protect the health and well-being of the nation’s children by providing nutritious school meals. NSLP provides funding that makes it possible for schools to offer a nutritious school lunch.

Schools receive federal funds for each breakfast and lunch served, provided that meals meet established nutrition standards.

In order to qualify for this benefit program (as far as free or reduced lunches are concerned), you must be a resident of the state of West Virginia and a parent or primary caregiver responsible for a child (or children) who attends school (high school or under) and meet specific financial guidelines.

West Virginia is one of seven states selected to participate in the USDA’s Community Eligibility Option (CEO), which will provide nearly 90,000 West Virginia students the opportunity to eat breakfast and lunch at designated schools at no cost. The CEO, which is part of reforms mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, will make it easier for eligible children in low-income communities to receive free meals in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.

As a participating state, West Virginia planned to expand its Universal Free Meals pilot from 73 schools in eight counties to some 283 schools in 35 high-need counties for the current 2012-2013 school year.

Now, strong nutrition programs are especially important in West Virginia, where nearly 150,000 children are considered needy and qualify for free and reduced-priced school meals. About 85,200 West Virginia children live in homes where they don’t know how they will get their next meal.

Public schools helped those children and others by serving some 14.8 million breakfasts and 32.3 million lunches last year. In addition, the Summer Food Program this year fed about 16,000 children daily at about 464 sites across the state.

School lunch menus are planned to meet a minimum of one-third of students’ daily need for major nutrients and calories. Typically lunches consist of at least the following items:

- 1 serving of meat or meat alternative

- 2 servings of vegetables and/or fruits

- 1.5 servings of bread or grain

- 1 cup low-fat fluid milk

While lunches must meet healthy meal standards set at federal and state levels, local sponsors make decisions about specific foods and menus, and plan special menus for children with medically ordered special diets.

About 32 million children nationwide participate in school meals programs daily. The new rules are a major component of Michelle Obama’s campaign to reduce the number of overweight children through exercise and better nutrition.

The rules are the first changes in 15 years to the $11 billion school lunch program. They will double in the amount of fruits and vegetables children are served in school and will require all grains served to be whole grains.

All milk served must be low fat, and for the first time the rules set limits on levels of salt and trans-fats. They also set a minimum and maximum calorie intake per day based on student age.

The government estimates that the rules will add about $3.2 billion in costs to the program.

Still, nonprofit research groups in Washington say the rules will provide healthier meals and have a major impact in reducing childhood obesity rates.


Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: