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Ellie Krieger

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A Change in School Nutrition

Posted: 04/12/10 05:35 PM ET

I paid nearly a dollar for an organic apple the other day, and I couldn't help but think: that's the entire food budget for a child's school lunch! With the Child Nutrition Act up for reauthorization, Michelle Obama making child wellness a priority, and tremendous public awareness of food issues, we are seeing great momentum for change in school food now. There is a refocusing on fresh, local produce and whole grains, support for community school gardens and a desperately needed updating of the national standards for school food.

On Wednesday I will have the opportunity to visit with thought leaders and members of Congress to discuss this important subject. On behalf of Food Network, I will testify before the House Committee on Agriculture about nutrition, healthy eating and the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.

In order to implement needed changes, schools need more than just guidelines and calls to action. The fact is, it's cheaper and easier to buy, store and prepare overly processed, sodium-laden, artificially-flavored food than the fresh, additive-free, unprocessed food our children deserve. Not only do we need more money to purchase better quality food, we need the facilities to store and prepare it and the staff training to do so healthfully.

My daughter's public school is a perfect case in point. The passionate and hardworking kitchen staff there works miracles daily, producing two meals a day for more than 700 children in a kitchen not much larger than a suburban walk-in closet. They have just two burners and two ancient ovens, one of which was not working last time I was there. There is neither funding nor space for a steamer. Infrastructural and equipment improvements as well as staff education are essential for supporting the use of more fresh produce, more from-scratch cooking and other healthful changes.

Food Network is trying to make a difference too, working in close partnership with Share Our Strength. In addition to delivering educational television programming and information on the Web about fresh foods and healthy eating, Food Network and Share Our Strength are educating children and families on the importance of fruits and vegetables by establishing Good Food Gardens at inner-city schools and family centers across the country. Their Good Food Gardens program teaches children hands-on gardening experiences that inspire healthy eating habits for life - a key to ending childhood obesity and hunger. This year the two organizations will also develop new initiatives around nutrition education in daycares and healthy school lunches and breakfasts.

And while much attention is paid to school meals, recent research reveals that 27 percent percent of children's calories actually come from snacks. To truly impact children's behavior, schools need to take a 360-degree approach to health, extending healthy guidelines in all foods distributed there, including vending machines and daily snacks. Celebrations and fundraisers should not necessarily disallow cupcakes (please, homemade should be encouraged, not banned in favor of packaged chips). Rather these events are a perfect opportunity to set an example of balance, moderation and creative healthy cooking. Perhaps a rainbow-colored fresh fruit salad at the party, too? Or a morning mango smoothie bar as a fundraiser?

We have a tremendous opportunity to redefine school food and shape our children's lives, and thus the future of our country, for the better. Let's make sure we take a truly holistic approach, looking at all the steps and facilities necessary for implementing the changes and creating a consistent environment of balanced eating of real food throughout the school.