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Wiggins: When kids eat at school, everyone wins

Betti Wiggins

As executive director of Detroit Public Schools’ office of school nutrition, I am more strongly encouraged in my profession as I have ever been. I am deeply grateful for the unprecedented growth of public interest in what and how we feed children in our public schools. I am also pleased with the wide range of tools available to us for ensuring that school meals contribute to the development of lifelong good eating habits and better health among the children we serve.

Recently, some have suggested that one of the new tools available to us, the federal Community Eligibility Program (CEP), represents a waste of federal dollars (Ingrid Jacques, “Free lunches add to federal waste,” July 21). Based on my experience serving almost 250,000 school lunches a week, along with thousands of breakfasts and suppers, CEP is far from a waste of money. In fact, it’s a rare federal program that will continuously yield a high return on investment for years to come.

CEP provides assistance to school districts serving economically disadvantaged children. These children come from households below the poverty line, households of what many call the “working poor,” and increasingly from households of a struggling middle class. Food insecurity, malnutrition and hunger are not exclusive to households under the poverty line. Increasingly, these conditions are found as much in the cul-de-sac as they are in public housing.

Some would have us believe that free lunches don’t come cheap to taxpayers. In fact, free lunches are relatively low cost, high return investments in the future of our country – its children. Where else do we expect to feed children well for less than $3 a meal? School food programs originated in the 1940s from national security concerns because so many children were malnourished and not physically fit for military service. Today, we continue to gain the collective benefit of school meals programs. We are all benefiting from an investment in stronger families.

Numerous studies from across the world confirm that when children are well fed with nutrient-dense meals, they are healthier, behave better, and their learning aptitude increases. They are also more likely to be academically successful over the long term. Good school food helps to establish a foundation for children to build lives as productive citizens.

The suggestion that healthier meals are less tasty and less appealing to students runs directly counter to our experience at DPS. With the additional resources provided by CEP, we are able to better meet the new school nutrition standards with items such as fresh fruits and vegetables procured from Michigan farms. As a result, DPS is spurring significant economic development activity by engaging with local farmers, and children are being fed higher quality, more nutritious meals that they truly enjoy.

School nutrition programs should strengthen a child’s knowledge of healthy eating habits. Food served at educational facilities should always aim at maximizing good health and proper nutrition. There is no room in an educational setting for anything less. Like mindless television viewing and video games, junk food and empty calories should be the strict prerogative of parents and guardians.

Breaking the multi-generational cycle of poverty is made far more feasible when our school lunches are a high priority rather than an after thought to be quickly consumed in a 20-minute window. Rather than seeking to minimize the effectiveness of school food programs, we should be making these programs a central part of our instructional curricula.

In every public issue, there is danger in hyperbole and playing loose with the facts. When it comes to the health and well-being of children served by our public schools, we should take great care to ensure that the information we provide the public is free of inaccuracies and ideological innuendo. We are talking about the health and well-being of children, many who derive a majority of their nutrition from food served at school.

Betti Wiggins is executive director of Detroit Public Schools’ office of school nutrition.