June 28, 2007
By Mary Lou Hennrich
The Legislature's passage this session of the Healthy Foods for Healthy Students bill is a significant step in the fight against childhood obesity, which is already causing serious health problems and increasing health care costs for Oregonians. Starting in the 2008-09 school year, the law will get the worst junk foods out of schools by specifying nutrition standards for all foods and beverages sold in vending machines, student stores and a la carte lines in school cafeterias.
These nutrition standards apply only to foods and beverages sold outside the National School Meals Program and will ensure that students won't have easy access to large servings of high-calorie snacks and sugar-laden drinks. But while the new law is a step forward for our children's nutrition and health, there's more that can and should be done.
We should support schools in purchasing more fruits and vegetables, while at the same time promoting students' awareness of where their food comes from. Oregon is one of a handful of states that doesn't contribute money to local school districts to improve the nutritional content of their meals. With only federal funding, Oregon schools try to provide nutritious lunches while spending less than about $1.50 per meal. Quality and freshness are often the casualties when we fail to prioritize our children's nutrition and health.
Three important bills are still pending in the waning days of the Legislature that would address the funding needs for school nutrition programs and bring Oregon agricultural products — fruits, vegetables and more — into school lunchrooms. Every penny counts when planning meals for hundreds of students. The addition of just a few cents per meal would allow school nutrition programs to make every meal more nutritious and healthful while purchasing Oregon products.
The farm-to-school bills also would build and strengthen the bridge between urban and rural Oregon. School cafeterias and gardens are exceptional hands-on learning environments, ideal settings to teach schoolchildren that they live in one of the most agriculturally abundant states in the country. Be it pears from Hood River or beef from eastern Oregon, students would see firsthand exactly where their food comes from and the interrelation of our state's diverse regions.
Now that we're about to get the junk food out of our schools, it's time to provide the money to bring more healthful food into our schools. School nutrition programs need adequate resources to purchase healthy food grown in Oregon.
Aren't our children worth pennies a day?
Mary Lou Hennrich is executive director of Community Health Partnership and is a founding member of the Oregon Nutrition Policy Alliance.