08/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Schools, the Chance to Change What Our Children Eat

As this school year closes, we at City Harvest are working to improve the food kids will eat at school in years to come. For the first time, New York City's local coalition of anti-hunger, nutrition and public health, community food security, and other groups are coming together to influence the federal legislation governing child nutrition programs. As part of the NYC Alliance for Child Nutrition Reauthorization, City Harvest has developed an outline of needed changes in collaboration with these other groups.

One in every three people fed by soup kitchens and food pantries in New York City is a child. Although eligible for free or reduced-price meals at school, many of these children at risk of hunger do not receive them. One third of children fed at emergency feeding programs do not receive free or reduced-price school lunch, and only about half get school breakfast. The fact is that many students are ashamed to be singled out as eating (and needing) free or reduced-price meals. Congress must vote to make school meals universal and provide free meals to all students at eligible schools. Not only would kids no longer feel embarrassed to eat a free meal, this change would remove costly paperwork for schools to process.

Another sad truth: half of the city's elementary school students are either overweight or obese. To make sure meals are better for students, Congress must update nutrition standards to include greater amounts of healthier foods like fresh fruits and vegetables and write into law that the USDA provide assistance to schools to buy local foods as well as financial incentives for schools that are successful. The USDA must increase reimbursement rates to schools so that they are able to provide the best food possible to our children. Funding for schools to offer nutrition education programs outside of the current academic requirements is also sorely needed. Finally, meals that we know meet our nutrition standards shouldn't have to compete with options that aren't healthy for our kids. Congress should require the elimination of less nutritious items like potato chips from the school environment, including their removal from cafeterias as options for "a la carte" purchase.

In our school meals program, we have a huge opportunity to feed more kids and to change what children eat. The chance to take a close look at this policy comes up only once every five years, and so implementing these strategies this year will be essential to meeting the Obama Administration's goal to end child hunger and food insecurity in America by 2015. With national programs dedicated to feeding them, our children shouldn't have to look to soup kitchens and food pantries for their meals. The National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs are responsible for more than half the food children eat each day for the majority of the year. As the rates of obesity and other diet-related diseases among our children rise, strengthening these programs is the most powerful measure we have to change their diets.

Learn more about the important changes that the NYC Alliance for Child Nutrition Reauthorization recommends and sign on to our list of priorities for the bill by visiting