My kids found out how to get Pop-Tarts for breakfast.
While we aren't zealous about the food we eat at home, a Pop-Tart would be considered an occasional dessert, not an everyday breakfast. But at the free breakfast program at my older kid's Alameda public school, they found they could get their fix. The breakfast program staff are so friendly and generous that they will also let my younger kid, who is not yet of school age, to help himself as well. One of my kids went to a summer camp held on an Alameda public school site and they've found that they can both continue to get free breakfasts anytime throughout the summer.
As a parent, I've been simultaneously pleased by the meal program and disappointed with the food itself.
The good news is that thanks to federal and state changes, more parents now have a stake in improving the school meal program. And also good news is that Alameda's state senator, Nancy Skinner, who led these changes, is proposing further improvements.
(And in the meantime, the compromise we reached is that on mornings when we do stop by the breakfast program and my kids find that Pop-Tarts are available, they may take it but have to share a single packet, which includes two of the "pastries.")
The same meals for all
The pandemic brought a small but profound change to public schools: free meals for all students. Instead of the prior arrangement of free meals to some students (those from poorer families, those living with foster parents, those who are homeless) and optionally allowing other students to purchase meals, federal pandemic aid made meals free for all students.
Unfortunately, the federal aid stopped. Fortunately, California became the first state in the nation to decide to use its own state budget to make this change permanent.
What was profound about the change — at least in my eyes — wasn't the change in cost. The price for a student to buy a meal was never that high in terms of dollars or cents. It's the change in process. Now there aren't any distinctions between how a "needy student" and a "wealthy student" accesses a meal on campus. There are no tokens or coupons or dollars or cents...
While districts now have funding to provide two meals (breakfast and lunch) to every single one of their students, the state funding is bare-bones. It's not going to bring all district food programs up to the quality advocated by Alice Waters or Michelle Obama or Jamie Oliver...
Improving meal quality and health
Nancy Skinner, who represents Alameda and the rest of the inner East Bay in the State Senate, has led these efforts throughout the entire state, and she's hard at work on improvements. Here's an update from Senator Skinner's June 8 newsletter:
It's no secret that kids do better academically when they don't have to go school hungry. Our universal meals program has quickly became a national model, with six other states having adopted universal school meals and more than 20 others expected to follow.
Two free meals a day for all of our students is a great start, but it's also important to help ensure that the meals our schools serve are healthy. To that end, I helped secure $600 million in the 2022 Budget Act to upgrade school kitchens so meals could be prepared onsite and secured additional funds so schools could buy healthy, California-grown food and expand the California Farm to School Grant program.
This year, I've introduced SB 348, Healthy Meals for Kids. It establishes guidelines for the amount of added sugar and salt these daily meals contain. Ensuring that added sugar and salt meets guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics will help reduce the incidence of diabetes and other health issues that are becoming epidemic among California's youth.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids today are increasingly facing chronic health issues associated with eating meals with too much added sugar, including diabetes, hypertension, and fatty liver disease. From 2001 to 2017, the percentage of young people living with type 2 diabetes soared by 95 percent in the U.S.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report last year showing that added sugar in school meals far exceeded the Dietary Guidelines for Americans standard. Under that standard, no more than 10% of calories from meals should come from added sugar. Currently, 92% of school breakfasts and 69% of school lunches currently exceed the standard.
[Pop-Tarts are almost certainly in that 92%.]
And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 9 in 10 U.S. children eat more sodium than recommended due to the popularity of processed foods. A high sodium diet, in turn, can lead to high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Today, about 1 in 10 kids ages 12-19 has raised blood pressure.
SB 348 is backed by a large coalition of organizations dedicated to improving children's health and by the advocacy organizations that helped us achieve California's free school meals for all, including the American Heart Association, California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, California Association of Food Banks, Dolores Huerta Foundation, Eat Real, No Kid Hungry, the Office of Kat Taylor, and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.
With our abundance of delicious, fresh-grown, nutritious food, California should have the nation's healthiest children, and SB 348 will put the needs of kids first. It will also ensure that California's universal school meals program remains a national trendsetter.
I would be in favor of these proposed improvements regardless of whether they directly benefited my own children. And yet, I find something meaningful to the fact that families of many socioeconomic levels have a stake in this: the tummies of California, the future of California, the commonweal of California.