Practice what you preach: does the National School Lunch Program meet nutritional recommendations set by other USDA programs?

AuthorDiSiena, Lizabeth
PositionUS Dept. of Agriculture
  1. INTRODUCTION II. BACKGROUND A. Early History of the National School Lunch Program B. Implementation of the National School Lunch Program C. Current State of the National School Lunch Program III. COMPARISON OF THE CALORIC REQUIREMENTS OF THE NATIONAL SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM TO GOVERNMENTAL AND NON-GOVERNMENTAL NUTRITIONAL RECOMMENDATIONS A. Why Calories? B. Caloric Requirements of the National School Lunch Program C. Caloric Recommendations of Other USDA Programs D. Caloric Recommendations of a Non-Governmental Organization E. Comparison of Programs IV. SUGGESTED CHANGES TO IMPROVE THE NATIONAL SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM A. Policy Recommendations for the National School Lunch Program B. Implementation Recommendations V. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

    Billy and Jessica are two students who attend Riverside High School. Billy, who just turned eighteen and started his senior year of high school, stands six-foot-five, weighs around 230 pounds, and is the star center of his high school basketball team. He has practice after school, so he usually does not return home until around 7:30 in the evening. Jessica, like her brother Billy, is also a star, but her achievements are in academics. She studies for her classes during the after school care program that runs until 5:00 p.m. every day. Although athletic when she was younger, Jessica chooses to focus her attention on academics instead of sports, standing five-foot-three inches tall and 115 pounds, average for her age. For the purposes of this case study, we shall assume Billy and Jessica come from an underprivileged family.

    On a typical school day, Billy and Jessica arrive at Riverside High School around 6:50 a.m. Before classes start, they eat a breakfast provided for them by the School Breakfast Program. (1)

    Both students receive the lunch offered to them as part of the National School Lunch Program, (2) which is scheduled for Billy around 10:30 a.m. and for Jessica at 12:30 p.m. Around 2:30 p.m., after school ends for the day, Jessica picks up her after school snack provided by the Afterschool Nutrition Program (3) while Billy rushes to basketball practice without a snack. Billy is not eligible for a snack because basketball at Riverside is organized solely for an athletic purpose and does not qualify under the Afterschool Nutrition Program. (4) Because of their family's limited financial means, neither Jessica nor Billy is able to eat anything outside of what is provided for them by the school's nutritional programs until they get home for dinner. (5)

    Assuming that Riverside High School is in full compliance with the nutritional requirements of the National School Lunch Program, (6) School Breakfast Program, (7) and Afterschool Snack Program, (8) Billy would typically be served an average of 1,200-1,350 calories during a regular school day, while Jessica would normally be served 1,500-1,850 calories. (9) Considering the difference in gender and activity level of Jessica and Billy, the variation in the potential caloric intake of these two students relying on federally regulated nutrition programs is more concerning.

    In accordance with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated caloric needs, Jessica, a sedentary thirteen-year-old female, should consume approximately 1,600 calories per day. (10) Comparing this recommended caloric intake with the average caloric content derived from subsidized food at school, Jessica either has one hundred calories remaining for dinner, or exceeds her daily allowance by two-hundred and fifty calories before she even sits down to eat. (11)

    Billy, on the other hand, has a different problem. According to the USDA, the estimated daily caloric need for Billy, an eighteen-year-old male with an active lifestyle, is approximately 3,200 calories. (12) Based on this recommendation, the star athlete receives fewer calories than recommended by 1,350 or 1,700 per day, seriously less than needed to be adequately nourished and with only one meal left in the day. (13)

    Thus, the National School Lunch Program (14) does not adequately fulfill the caloric needs of all children who are participating in the program. This is surprising because the USDA specifically outlines distinct differences in caloric intake requirements between adolescent males and females. (15)

    The dissimilar caloric requirements become even more apparent when viewing recommendations based on age and activity levels. The current School Breakfast Program, (16) National School Lunch Program, (17) and Afterschool Nutrition Program only consider the grade level of the child when determining caloric and nutritional allotments. (18) Based on these findings, the USDA would more effectively reach the goals of these programs through consideration of gender, activity level, and individual age when formulating calorie requirements for the National School Lunch Program. (19)

    Part II of this Note provides a historical background of the National School Lunch Program, (20) specifically analyzing the purpose, implementation, and current state of the program. Part III begins by explaining why consideration of calories plays an important role in achieving proper weight management. It then concludes with a comparison between the caloric intake requirements of the National School Lunch Program, (21) and the nutritional recommendations by other USDA government health initiatives, (22) and non-governmental programs. (23) Finally, Part IV proposes that the National School Lunch Program (24) provide nutrition options for students that appropriately consider age, gender, and activity level in determination of caloric limits for lunches served as a part of the nutrition program.


    1. Early History of the National School Lunch Program

      An analysis of the early history of the National School Lunch Program is essential to understanding the rationale behind the program's nutritional requirements. Although the National School Lunch Program was not officially created until 1946, such programs were conceptualized in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during the Progressive Era. (25) During this time there was a notable policy shift in education, requiring for the first time all children attend school. (26) Most children, including those born of wealthier families, were sent to school with little or no food. (27) Due to hunger, malnourished students had greater difficulty focusing in the classroom and, as a result, received lower grades than their well-fed counterparts. (28)

      Early school lunch programs seeking to curb childhood hunger were mainly local efforts supported by charity and women's organizations. (29) "During the late nineteenth century, voluntary organizations regularly operated free lunch programs for poor children in American cities." (30) Two specific groups of activists emerged to address the well being of impoverished children. (31) The first group included individuals who were involved with early education. (32) Those in direct contact with children on a regular basis in school became aware that many children from impoverished families were not receiving proper nutrition. (33) The second group was concerned with the quality of the food being fed to children. (34) The common interest of both groups of reformers, to better protect the well being of the country's children, sparked the creation of lunch programs in many of the country's largest cities. (35) The programs were purely local; the federal government did not become involved until after the Great Depression. (36)

      The economic effect of the Great Depression led to food scarcity, causing a drastic increase in the number of hungry and malnourished people. (37) As a result:

      In many communities, civic groups and PTAs started school lunch programs or expanded old ones. In New York City, teachers gave a portion of their salaries to fund such programs. In Chicago, the Board of Education started a lunch program in about half the city's schools that relied on donated food and volunteer labor. A dozen states enacted legislation authorizing cities to use tax funds for school meals, and in some cases added state funds to help meet the costs. (38) One impetus for the creation of the school lunch programs was to prevent children from falling victim to hunger. (39) But while it was an interest in protecting hungry children in the aftermath of the Great Depression that pushed communities and states to develop lunch programs, the federal government's creation of a similar program was motivated by a desire to recycle agricultural surplus created by farmers' attempts to compensate for declining food prices with larger production. As farmers increased production to try to offset the decrease in the market value of the goods they were trying to sell, surpluses of food commodities developed. (40) President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs sought to restore order to the markets by destroying the surpluses. (41) This policy caused a negative public reaction as many people were struggling to put food on the table. (42) The negative public reaction caused President Franklin Roosevelt to "[o]rder the Secretary of Agriculture and the Federal Emergency Relief administrator to set up a program to purchase farm surpluses and distribute them to the needy unemployed." (43) A program was implemented through the entity called the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation and was used primarily to recycle surplus farm commodities. (44)

      The program instituted by the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation ended in 1935 and the remaining resources were disbursed to the USD A, which in turn donated some of the surplus food to schools. (45) The relationship between the USDA and the schools was solidified through Section 32 of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (known to food assistance groups simply as "Section 32"). (46) Section 32 was designed to boost the income of the farmers and increase the market opportunities for products that the...

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