Leah Whigham, Ph.D.
When I moved my family here to Grand Forks last year to start my new job as a scientist at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, one of the first improvements I noticed in our lives was the quality of the school lunches my daughter was receiving. She quickly shifted from eating school lunches a few times a week (as she had where we lived previously) to eating school lunch daily.
Through my professional connections, I soon learned this was largely due to the efforts of Julie Tunseth, Director of the Grand Forks Child Nutrition Program (CNP), and her hard-working staff. I learned that not only do they provide meals that meet the National School Lunch Program requirements, but they go beyond those requirements nutritionally and strive to do so with foods that appeal to kids.
The National School Lunch Program was established in 1946 as a federally assisted meal program that provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to public and non-profit private schools. The program was expanded in 1998 to include reimbursement for snacks served to children in afterschool educational programs. The School Breakfast Program was piloted in the 1960s and became permanent in 1975. Both programs require schools to serve meals that meet Federal standards and offer free or reduced price meals to eligible children. In Grand Forks, all recordkeeping to determine who receives free or reduced meals is done electronically. Children enter an ID number when they receive their meal and the appropriate account deduction is made electronically. Therefore, unlike the past when children carried color-coded lunch tickets, the children are not aware who is receiving a free or reduced meal and who is paying full price.
The federal regulations require that no more than 30 percent of calories come from fat (less than 10 percent from saturated fat) and that meals provide one?third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories. The Grand Forks CNP goes beyond these federal requirements. For example, they use almost all whole-grain products, provide a wide selection of nutrient-rich fresh fruits and vegetables each day, taste tests new recipes with the kids in the schools, make many of the menu items from scratch (on most days, kids have at least one homemade entrée option to choose from rather than only reheated prepackaged foods primarily used in many school districts), secure grants to pay for a fruit and vegetable snack program in schools that qualify, and provide education to kids about the importance of a nutritious diet. This is an amazing feat considering that about 7,000 meals are provided daily to children in Grand Forks! These meals not only balance cost and food availability, but also account for taste preferences and special dietary needs such as food allergies.
All of this hard work shows with the very high participation rates for the school lunch program in Grand Forks. Surprisingly, only a fraction of those kids also participate in the school breakfast program. Breakfast is a must for kids. Study after study has shown that breakfast improves school performance. Kids who eat breakfast do better on standardized exams, show improved short-term and spatial memory, do better on tasks requiring processing of complex visual displays, are absent or tardy from school less often, and have higher daily intake of many critical nutrients than do kids who skip breakfast.
Of the many Grand Forks children who qualify for free breakfast, only 42 percent of those in elementary school and 29 percent of those in middle and high school participate in school breakfast. For those paying full-price, the cost is only $1. The federal government provides support for each meal served, whether the child qualifies for free meals or pays full price. Therefore, the more school meals served the more federal support that is available to the CNP, and the more options they can afford to offer. At most schools, breakfast starts about 30 minutes prior to the start of the school day. It is critical that we as parents ensure our kids eat breakfast daily, and doing so through the school breakfast program is a great way to do it. Plus, by bringing your kids to school in time for breakfast, you will beat the crazy drop-off crowd!