In an effort to broaden my knowledge and understanding of our nation’s federal child nutrition programs, I recently attended the Arkansas Department of Education’s (ADE) Child Nutrition Manager/Director certification program. Prior to attending the ADE child nutrition training, I had no idea just how cumbersome the ADE child nutrition (CN) program is nor the extent of the training that CN employees have to complete on an ongoing basis. Gone are the days of refined sugars and high fructose corn syrup sweetened desserts and white flour yeast rolls baked from scratch. Each meal served must adhere to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines for recipes, including portion sizes, ingredients, and minimum required servings offered from all of the major food groups.
School lunch programs are no longer comprised of simple meal preparation and service; they are practically a science. Not to mention all of the documentation and paperwork required by the federal government in order for each school to participate in the federal program. I do, however, understand why the government must keep such close tabs on this program, as it is our country's largest federal child nutrition program, providing nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 31.6 million children each school day. A year ago, I wrote about the impact of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) [see Child Hunger and Food Programs in America] on the child hunger epidemic in America. Since the NSLP is an entitlement program, all eligible schools and all eligible children in these schools may participate in the program. Approved NSLP schools receive cash subsidies of up to $3.07 per meal for each meal they serve, as well as donated commodity foods from the USDA. In return, they must serve lunches that meet federal nutritional requirements, and they must offer free or reduced lunches to eligible children.
It is hard to fathom that 20 million children receive free or reduced-price lunch each school day, half of them eat breakfast, and 10% have access to summer meal sites. Given the increasing number of school-aged children who rely on meals provided by schools alone as their source of food, it is extremely important that we make sure that our children have access to healthy, nutritious foods that allow them to thrive in and out of the classroom. Times are hard for 48 million Americans, including 12 million children and 7 million seniors, who currently struggle with hunger every day. Many parents cannot feed their children nutritious meals without assistance. We know that these children need access to healthy foods outside of those provided by their school nutrition programs; however, that is unfortunately not the reality for most children.
During my CN training, many of the school districts' directors and managers spoke about how difficult it is to stay compliant with the latest regulations set by the government. They must adapt to ever-changing rules and even tighter budgets, which at times seems almost impossible. Yet, every single person agreed that they are there for the children. Their students make the neverending training, meetings, and headaches worthwhile. On any given Friday, they know that many of the children in their schools may not have another meal until Monday morning. They know that their job of keeping our nation’s children fed and well nourished is vital to their futures.