March is National Nutrition Month, and that means it’s a 31-day opportunity to raise awareness on some very serious health issues Americans and their children face every day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced this week that this year’s month will be dedicated to “raising a healthier generation of kids.” With such an ambitious goal to turn the entire country’s way of eating in the opposite direction, the USDA will need all of the educational tools and support it can get.

The nutrition imbalance in America is overwhelmingly apparent in shopping malls, workplaces, movie theaters, and most of all, schools. The obesity epidemic weaves its way through pre-K up to college. But the problem starts at school lunch, which is why the USDA has created nutrition assistance programs, such as the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, in order to provide children with higher quality nutrition. By feeding children healthy food, Americans are choosing a healthier future.

In 2011, a school in Chicago tried to pull off a radical new policy: banning school lunches brought from home and forcing students to purchase the school’s lunch. The concept is difficult to stomach, especially considering allergies and other food restrictions, which would make it difficult for any school to meet the needs of all its students. A medical note would be required for a student to bring a lunch from home, but that turns into a whole other issue of stigmatizing a student for having special needs, that in turn isolates him from the other students who purchase their lunches.

The real problem, however, is the big, fat elephant in the room that school lunches have been notorious for bending the rules for what can be considered a fruit, whole grain, or vegetable. The USDA allows schools to meet the standards if they serve fruit suspended Jell-O, prepackaged salty pretzels, and the tomato sauce on top of frozen pizzas.

Let’s not forget the federal government pays school districts for each free or reduced-price lunch ordered by a student, making banned homemade lunches a money maker. There it is, all coming back down to the money. It’s the reason why they cheat the system, cut corners, and sacrifice students’ health for budget costs.

It’s frightening, dangerous even how policies can skim by when it is a child’s health on the other end of the cause and effect. In the last 30 years, childhood obesity has doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Maybe school districts should be taking a closer look at the adults those unhealthy students will likely become. The estimated annual medical costs of an obese adult are $1,429 higher than the medical costs of a normal weight adult.

Brain Food Health
Health for your child's growing brain is too important to cheap out on. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

In addition to the physical and financial payments future generations will have to pay for their unhealthy upbringing, they will also incur mental costs. Studies have shown children who suffer from poor nutrition imbalances during the most formative brain-sponge years score much lower on tests for vocabulary, reading comprehension, arithmetic, and general cognitive ability. The USDA is implementing programs, hoping students will catch on as cheaply and quickly as possible before a real change needs to be made, but first let’s take a closer look at their national nutrition programs.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially for a growing student. It can improve attention span and classroom behavior, and over the last seven years, between 2008 and 2014, the USDA’s School Breakfast Program participation has grown 27.8 percent across the country. Good news.

Not so good news is when the 1946 National School Lunch Act was signed by President Truman, it was because the USDA needed to find a market for their surplus commodity foods. It seemed perfect at the start — they had extra food and little mouths willing to eat it. However, it quickly turned into a business model. Where could they improve their profit margins?

There is a history of abuse in the school lunch program, which is one of the reasons America now faces an uphill battle with childhood obesity. Prioritizing preventive care is the answer to a healthier future. By investing in a student’s health from the start, not only will their bodies be well fed but also their impressionable minds. Otherwise, children will grow into adults who will end up paying the price in the end, which also means the future of America. During National Nutrition Month, parents, teachers, doctors, and nutritionists alike can only hope school administrators will stop stealing from a child’s future with their money hungry sporks.