by Allie Molinaro
Many of us associate learning with the classroom, but what students learn in the cafeteria is also important for their future. Before students can succeed in school and beyond, they must first learn how to take care of themselves and their environment in a way that facilitates future success. And that starts with their food.
Three in every five children eat school lunches, and three in every ten children eat school breakfasts, amounting to 7 billion meals annually. The eating habits children do and don’t learn in the cafeteria shape the dietary practices that will follow them into adulthood. More importantly, what we feed our children now has both short- and long-term impacts on their personal health and the health of our already battered planet, making the difference between a future of health and prosperity or a future rife with adversity.
Dozens of health organizations including the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society recommend eating less red and processed meat, which are consistently linked to chronic diseases, cancer, and early death. Several health experts in the New England Journal of Medicine recently made recommendations to reduce the amount of processed meat served in schools and increase the amount of legumes, whole grains, and healthy oils.
In addition, animal-sourced food consumption is one of the most significant contributors to our personal carbon footprints. The livestock sector is a leading driver of biodiversity loss, deforestation, and resource depletion. Experts warn that if global meat consumption does not decrease by at least 50%, our children will inherit a planet that has been severely degraded and where much of the population will increasingly suffer from malnutrition and preventable disease.
Despite this, animal-sourced products from factory farms dominate school lunch menus. This is because meat and dairy products from large-scale producers are made available at reduced costs to schools through the USDA Foods Program. As a result, children are being fed the very foods that will have the most detrimental impacts on their future.
Sadly, many children do not even know where their food comes from, let alone its nutritional quality or production externalities. Students generally receive less than eight hours of nutrition education annually, only a fraction of the 40 - 50 hours recommended by the CDC. Many students have no idea about the immense animal suffering and environmental implications behind their meals, and those who do have few plant-based options. Regional farm-to-school programs and school gardens have made some progress, but it is not nearly enough.
As public schools enter their final weeks before summer break, Congress has a significant opportunity to expand plant-based food options in school cafeterias next year. The Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Program Act would provide $10 million in grants for schools to procure and serve 100% plant-based food and milk options for students.
Students have the right to learn where their food comes from and have options that align with their values and safeguard their future. Tell your representatives to support the Healthy Future Students and Earth Act now.