As summer winds down, parents begin to focus on the many back-to-school tasks ahead of them. The to-do-list may already feel long, but parents should commit to adding one more item: This year, take personal responsibility for feeding your children.
Some may be surprised that such an addition is necessary: Aren’t parents already performing this basic task? The truth is that, tempted by promises of “healthy” school meals, many moms and dads have been swayed to cede this responsibility to their local school. Many schools serve not just lunch but three meals a day so it’s not unusual for kids to be primarily fed, not at home, but in a cafeteria setting.
Sadly, government has applauded, even encouraged, this trend. The goal of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 wasn’t just to improve the quality of food served, but also to increase the number of children eating school lunches. Upon its passage, policymakers on both sides of the aisle praised the bill, but two years later, school lunches haven’t improved much and may have gotten worse.
Stories abound of massive waste, irritated and still-hungry children who refuse to eat the “new and improved” meals, and a thriving black market of snacks brought in from outside the schools. Vending machines have been stripped of the foods kids like to eat too.
Notwithstanding the overall student dissatisfaction with these new school meals, enrollment in the program has increased. Today, a whopping 32 million children receive school meals and these numbers are expected to rise even more due to a provision in the new law that allows children to be automatically enrolled in the program.
Taxpayers should note that the kids eating these meals aren’t all from needy families who can’t afford to pack a school lunch. In fact, middle-class and even affluent parents make use of government-subsidized school meals for their own convenience. The public should ask themselves: In an era of explosive government debt, calls for sequestration and shared sacrifice, why are taxpayers being asked to pay for parents who can’t find the time (literally, a few minutes) to make a homemade lunch for their school-aged children?
The breakdown of just who eats these meals bears this out. Of the five billion meals served during the 2011-12 school year, 33 percent were paid in full — meaning a large percentage of the kids eating these meals didn’t need or qualify for a free or reduced cost meal. In other words, these are kids whose parents can afford to pack them a lunch. According to the School Nutrition Association, on average, full priced school lunch costs $2.08. While that might seem reasonable, that’s a pretty high price to pay if kids won’t eat what’s being served.
Before anyone suggests making a homemade lunch is too hard or more expensive, consider the meals designed for those who subscribe to MOMables, an online service providing parents low-cost, easy to make, yet creative and nutritious homemade lunch options. The MOMables Turkey & Cheese Quiche menu item costs just $1.82, the Grilled Avocado and Hummus Sandwich comes in at $1.87, and the Berry Wrap is only $1.74. Each of these menu items includes a large serving of fruit and vegetables on the side.
How does MOMables keep the lunch items costs down while using fresh ingredients? The trick is in the planning. MOMables helps parents utilize dinner leftovers and repurpose them for lunch, suggests parents pack meals ahead of time, thus eliminating the morning scramble, and uses flexible meal plans where substitutions for eating preferences can be made (not the case in the cafeteria).
Childhood obesity studies indicate that parental involvement in a child’s eating habits is critical to children’s health. Several studies show that family meals, limiting television viewing, and getting kids to bed at a reasonable hour are the real keys to helping kids eat right and maintain a healthy weight. A home-packed meal can be a part of that. That homemade lunch sends a subtle message to a child that mom and dad are in charge even when the child is away at school.
So here’s a little homework for parents: Get up a few minutes early this year, and make your children a lunch. We must leave the school lunch program as a resource for impoverished families who need the help, not as a crutch for the rest of us.
Julie Gunlock writes for the Independent Women’s Forum and makes lunches every morning for her three kids. Laura Fuentes is the Founder and CEO of MOMables®, the first meal-planning service for healthy and fresh school lunches.