Back in the day, school lunches were just that, school lunches. There was no breakfast, snack, or dinner, no matter how many hours you were in the classroom. Today, school lunches, and afterschool snack programs provide a much-needed nutritional benefit for a majority of children who might be poorly fed or in some cases, not fed at all.
In the Elk Grove Unified School District, in the South Sacramento area, kindergarten students through 6th graders who receive Title 1 or reduced or free lunch program are provided an additional meal in the afterschool programs. Previously students received breakfast, lunch, and a snack after school, around 2:15pm. Now dinner is served around 4:15pm.
A great number of students are at school from 7:00am to 6:00pm, which makes for a very long day and a lot of growing, energy-exuding bodies. Beginning this past October, and continuing for the next couple of years, federal dollars will make these dinner meals available to after-schoolers. The meals include a meat or meat alternative, bread, fruit, vegetable and milk.
The 39 Elk Grove elementary schools participating in the Harvest of the Month food program are feeding its students and educating families, by way of a collaborative effort of educators, child nutritionists, school administration, retail outlets and local media. A monthly food curriculum and daily physical fitness opportunities act to support and encourage the students to make healthy food choices, namely fresh fruits and vegetables. Another program goal is both to demonstrate and encourage a sense of moderation in students' daily food choices -- with fewer snacks, high sugar drinks, and processed foods. All of these actions are not only to feed the student but to help prevent childhood obesity and other chronic diseases, like diabetes, that are on the increase.
The movement comes as a directive from the California Department of Public Health's Network for a Healthy California’s Champions for Change program. With all of the concern about the nutritional value of school meals, the School Nutrition Association's (SNA) research confirms the following:
Meals served under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) must, by federal law, meet nutrition guidelines based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. No more than 30% of calories can come from fat and less than 10% from saturated fat. School lunches provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories. These guidelines apply over the course of one week of school lunch menus.
Visiting the Union House Elementary School, I observed and commented to Principal Dorothy Stoppleman and District Nutritionist Michelle Drake that the students were eating these strange white strips that looked like raw potatoes. "Oh, those are jicama, a large bulbous root vegetable used in a lot of Mexican recipes. The students learn about the veggie and get to explore its taste through food demonstrations and taste tests in the classroom," they explained.
When I asked several of the students what they thought of the dinners, some of the comments were, "good food," "I don't have to be hungry before I get to have dinner at home," or "I like that we get to try more new foods." Fourth grade student Jordan Reeves said, "At my house we usually eat around 7 o'clock, so what I eat here after school is like a snack before dinner."
In wake of the nation's economic difficulties profoundly affecting struggling, poor families, one parent commented that, "This program helps me expand my food dollars at home. I don't have to buy so much to make sure everyone gets enough to eat." Nutritionist Drake added that a few negative comments from the public have been that the schools spend too much money on social programs and don't allow the parents to take on the responsibility for feeding their own families. "Our District feels, if we have the ability to to help our families with a little extra food each day, then we should do it. We are only talking about feeding children."