Minority Health and School Food: What's the Link?

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There's a reason why the old adage, "you are what you eat," is still with us today.

Despite advances in technology and findings from recent scientific studies, all the facts point back to the obvious: What we consume has a dramatic impact on our health. This is true for adults and children alike.

The "adult conditions" that we now see in children such as diabetes, extreme weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels are traced back to food consumption and lack of physical activity.

In Fiscal Year 2009, more than 31.3 million children a day received lunch through the National School Lunch Program with about 11.1 million participating in breakfast each day, according to the Food Research and Action Center. Eligibility for the free and reduced-price lunch program is often used as a proxy measure of family income.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2005, 41 percent of 4th graders were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Only 24 percent of White 4th graders were eligible, while 70 percent of Black and 73 percent of Hispanic students qualified. Eligible as well were 65 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native and 33 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander 4th graders.

Minorities participate in great numbers in the school lunch program, and some school districts have devised ways to extend the food service over the summer to guarantee that lower income children have access to at least one full meal per day. Minority children are also particularly hard hit by obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes. Therefore, school food is a critical social determinant of the health of minority children.

With continued increases in the number of children eating school meals - which now includes breakfast, lunch and occasionally snacks - and the increase in obesity, the push for access to nutritious meals has become paramount.

But, school meals could and should be also a great teachable moment, a pathway to a lifelong education on healthy eating and the environmental impact of our food choices. And we should not forget the link between good nutrition and ability to perform well academically, which has something to do with the persistence of the achievement gap.

Let's make all those links clear during National Minority Health Month, April 2011 and beyond.

Helpful Links

National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet
NSLP Child Nutrition Fact Sheet
Food Research and Action Center
USDA The National School Lunch Program: Background, Trends, and Issues
CDC Obesity Rates


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