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Commentary: Positive changes for school lunches

The recent announcement of U.S. Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue's rollback of school lunch regulations relating to whole grains, sodium and dairy drew much attention. We applaud Perdue's quick action to give more flexibility back to states and local school districts to find the best solutions for their schools to feed kids.

America feeds the world but we also need to find solutions to best feed our people. One size doesn't fit all when it comes to feeding kids or school lunches. Let's not pretend school lunches of the distant past were perfect or even good enough. There always have been issues with providing a crowd with healthy options that won't get tossed in the trash.

Former first lady Michelle Obama made healthy choices and school lunches a part of her "Let's Move" campaign in the White House when the Obama administration inked the finalized school lunch standards in 2012.

The standards and campaign work made an impact. Schools now offer more variety in salad bars, and fruit and vegetable consumption has increased. But the efforts didn't move the needle on the childhood obesity epidemic, and food waste in America remains at around 40 percent. Perdue noted when he signed the proclamation from a Virginia elementary school that in fiscal year 2015 the school rules had cost school districts and states an additional $1.22 billion to implement and enforce.

Also, the regulations Obama championed were applied to all public schools receiving federal school lunch funding across the board, and didn't take into account the different needs of different kids. A high school athlete requires thousands of calories whereas the inactive high school kid could live within the 850 calorie limitation for grades 9-12.

Perdue's rollback did not address all federal school lunch limitations, such as calorie restrictions and limitations on protein grams. But it allows schools to serve a sandwich now on a bun that isn't whole grain. It allows kids to drink 1 percent milk or low-fat chocolate milk. While there is no perfect solution to school lunch, Perdue has begun the process of making needed improvements and allowing for more local control.

For many kids — including the 47.5 percent of American kids on free and reduced-priced breakfasts and lunches — the school lunch program meals are often the healthiest, best food they will eat all day. But children don't always get information on the best ways to feed themselves. Gone are the days of home economics requirements for graduation. Future changes in school lunch programs would be better served to offer schools flexibility to teach kids about agriculture and food, rather than solely looking at whole grains, sodium, protein and calories.

More farm-to-school programs could increase schools' access to fresh fruits and vegetables and meet farmers who grow the food. More school garden programs could teach kids about the basics of growing food and could provide more healthy options. Kids who learn more about agriculture and foods may be more connected to the food and less likely to waste it.

We don't have the perfect answer, but we do know the solution won't be found sitting behind a desk in Washington, D.C. New ideas and solutions should be implemented by passionate teachers, administrators, farm-to-school programs, school boards, students and parents.

In the breadbasket of America, where we reside, let's feed our kids, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Encourage new ways to connect all kinds of kids to where food comes from in school lunches, in classrooms and outside in the dirt. Healthy kids, who now can drink low-fat chocolate milk in school — again thanks to Secretary Perdue — are our future.

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