Each year 5.5 billion lunches and 2 billion breakfasts are served in schools in the United States, and The Center for Ecoliteracy sees each one of them as an opportunity to improve childhood nutrition.

The Berkeley, CA-based center, a nonprofit dedicated to education for sustainable living, has proposed an endeavor called “Rethinking School Lunch,” 10 ways (or pathways, as it refers to them) in which parents, educators or concerned citizens revamp local school meal programs, depending on resources or interests.

With an emphasis on the farm-to-schools approach–connecting lunch programs to local farms and helping keep local farms economically viable–as well as integrating gardening and cooking instruction with classroom teaching, Rethinking School Lunch is a planning framework that aims to create “food literate graduates, invigorated local communities, sustainable agriculture, and a healthy environment.”

In an overview of its proposal, the center points out that the National School Lunch Program, which makes federally subsidized meals available in schools, was created after 150,000 young men were rejected for military service during World War II due to malnutrition, and another 150,000 died during the war because of nutrition-related, weakened conditions.

Today, poor nutrition is no less an issue, and the center says that 9 million young adults–27 percent of Americans between 17 and 24–are too overweight to be accepted for military service.

The center also says obesity-related medical costs account for nearly 10 percent of all annual medical spending in the U.S. and cites an Emory University researcher’s estimate that the nation will face $344 billion in yearly obesity-related medical costs by 2018 if current trends hold.

As a result of obesity, “the current generation of young people may have shorter life spans than their parents, a reversal of two centuries of increasing life expectancy, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Among the 10 things the Center of Ecoliteracy suggests schools do to address this problem by rethinking lunch are:  offering a variety of delicious, appealing and nutritious menu items; making the shift to fresh, seasonal food grown locally or regionally and prepared on site; adding hands-on learning  such as school gardens and kitchens; and making the cafeteria a central, pleasant dining room.

Nearly two-thirds of the students who get meals at school through the National
School Lunch Program come from low-income families, and often that food is their best opportunity to get a healthy meal.  In Berkeley, a consortium of groups helps low-income children gain more access to locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as physical activity, and funds school gardens and kitchen classes in the public schools.

Congress has since mandated that all schools participating in federal school lunches adopt similar wellness policies, although the Center for Ecoliteracy believes there is still much room for improvement.

According to a  survey, fewer than one-third of the school districts nationwide have a process in place for revising wellness policies.  About 9,000 schools in the United States participate in farm-to-school programs.

A recent three-year assessment of Berkeley’s School Lunch Initiative concluded that exposing elementary school students to gardening, cooking and nutrition instruction improved their eating habits, although similar improvements were not as evident in middle school.  But the study also found that most students whose schools were part of the initiative were generally more knowledgable about nutrition and had more positive attitudes about the taste and value of school lunch. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that school nutrition services have about $1 to spend on food per lunch.  A poll by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) revealed that a majority of nutrition services directors ranked money as the biggest obstacle facing their program.