Are Your Kids Hungry For A Better School Lunch?

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by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

With the advent of computers, video games, cell phones and other electronic entertainment, fewer kids are playing outside and getting enough exercise. To make matters worse, kids are increasingly filling up on sugary, fried and processed foods that are doing their bodies no favors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 16.9 percent of children and adolescents across the country were obese in 2007-08; almost 32 percent were considered either overweight or obese.  More alarming is the skyrocketing nationwide rate of childhood obesity over the last 30 years.

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Among 2 to 5 year olds, the rate has doubled, from 5 to 10.4 percent; for 6 to 11 year olds, it has quadrupled, from 4.2 to 19.6 percent; and for adolescents it has tripled, from 4.6 to 18.1 percent.

And New Jersey is no different.  In 2004, New Jersey had the nation’s highest percentage of overweight and obese children under age 5 (17.7 percent).  A state survey in 2005 found 12 percent of high-schoolers were overweight, while a 2003 survey found 20 percent of sixth graders were obese with another 18 percent overweight.

Health problems related to obesity are cause for great concern.  Obese kids can develop adult diseases like hypertension and Type-2 diabetes. In the long term, overweight youngsters are at increased risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer and more.

In response, U.S. Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District is combating the problem with a law that would boost both local farms and the health of youngsters.  He recently introduced the Farm to School Improvements Act (HR 4710), and it is a win-win for the Garden State!

Congressman Holt’s bill would strengthen Farm to School programs that bring locally or regionally grown fresh produce into schools.  Benefits include improved nutrition for kids participating in school lunch programs; heightened awareness of the links between farming, food, nutrition and the environment; increased markets for small and medium-sized farms and food producers; and less pollution because less energy is used to transport food.

West New York (Hudson County) Public School No. 5 is an example of a successful Farm to School program.  The school offers a weekly “Fresh Fruit and Vegetables” program.  Every Thursday, kids receive a piece of fruit or vegetable, and learn about it through taste-tests and talks with the school executive chef.

Bringing farm-fresh foods into schools can have an immediate impact. For many children, school lunch is the most important meal of their day, making up a third of their daily nutritional intake.

And the choice of healthier produce options in the school cafeteria can lead to lifelong improvements in eating habits. Kids who are exposed to the Garden State’s best veggies and fruits in school – and who learn how their diets affect their health – may find that they prefer munching crisp vegetables or naturally-sweet fruits at home.

And these days when school budget cuts are in the news, Farm to School programs can actually save money. Working creatively with farmers, some schools have found ways to reduce costs by purchasing locally.

Although authorized in 2004, federal funding for Farm to School programs has never been fully appropriated.  Congressman Holt’s bill would establish $10 million in mandatory funding each year for a competitive grant and technical assistance program to support Farm to School programs.  It’s a measure that should be included in the Congressional re-authorization of the Childhood Nutrition Act, which guides how 31 million children receive meals at school.

Congressman Holt’s bill benefits both New Jersey children and farmers.  It is a cost-effective route to better health, lower healthcare costs and agricultural viability.  Contact your U.S. Senators and Congressional representatives today and ask them to support HR4710.  You can find your House of Representatives member at https://writerep.house.gov/writerep or by calling the House switchboard at 202-224-3121.

Urge both U.S. Senators Robert Menendez (at 202-224-4744) and Frank Lautenberg to support the Senate version, S3123. Menendez can be reached through a contact form on his website at http://menendez.senate.gov or at 202-224-4744, and Lautenberg can be reached through a contact form on his website at http://lautenberg.senate.gov or at 202-224-3224 or toll free at 888-398-1642. You can read the entire bill at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c111:H.R.4710 .

And I hope you will consult NJCF’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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