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Published September 23, 2013, 10:11 AM

Kids need more

What has changed for the federally funded and mandated school lunch program this year? Oh, where do I start? Snacks are being regulated.

By: Katie Pinke, Agweek

What has changed for the federally funded and mandated school lunch program this year? Oh, where do I start? Snacks are being regulated. The guidelines continue to prohibit kids—who are hungry—from receiving enough protein and calories. Despite the letters and calls to our elected officials, tweets to U.S. Department of Agriculture, a Sensible School Lunch call to action via Facebook, blogging efforts and even the introduction of the Sensible School Lunch Act, Congress has not changed the mandates and standards, which were initially created by Michelle Obama and then formalized by USDA into the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

This topic has me so fired up I could blog about it every day. But screaming and ranting doesn’t foster progress. I have worked behind the scenes with friends to demand positive change for hungry kids in schools. But I think our demands have fallen on deaf ears. Or, we created such a stir that USDA started slapping hands and told people to back off and be quiet.

Well, I’m not backing off and neither is the band of those who are concerned. Rob Port from North Dakota shared an update on what is happening in my home state this week, highlighting the food waste and increased expense the school lunch program is creating.

So what are you going to do about it? You don’t have to have kids to care. You don’t have to have kids in public schools for this issue to eat at you, literally and figuratively. In the United States of America, where we provide public education to children and grow an abundance of food, I will not stand back and watch as our kids are not properly fed in our schools.

Kids are hungry in schools

I am a food-choice mom. I want all kids to have choices when it comes to what they eat. Above all, I want them to have enough to eat so they can learn and be active while in school.

I’m not concerned about how these regulations are affecting my three kids. I make sure they are fed. I’m worried about the kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch and breakfast, which is the majority of American kids, and don’t have the extra money in their lunch accounts to buy second helpings.

They aren’t getting enough protein to keep them full. In reality, they are eating processed food that I wouldn’t dare feed my kids at home. How are we going to provoke change in our school lunch program? Last year, I thought a national effort was needed. This year, I am trying a new approach until the federal mess can be fixed for all kids.

First, I went to the grocery store and bought snacks for my children. I pack boxes of food before my son leaves on a school bus trip whether it is to a track meet or State FFA. His teammates and friends call out, “Mama Pinke!” when I pull up to the bus, anxious to see what is in the box of goodies. If you can make a difference, even in a small way, then start in your local school.

Next, I gave in and let my son come home for lunch. This flies in the face of what my husband and I believe in. Our son should eat in school.

School lunch at home

In fact, the Associated Press interviewed him about his need to eat in school last year, and the story appeared in national publications. He is a big boy. He is an athlete. Kids come in all shapes, sizes and activity levels, and they need varying amounts of food. Limiting calories, grains and proteins with a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. It especially doesn’t work for the kids who don’t have extra money to buy more food.

Until this problem is fixed, I’m not going to let my 6-foot 5-inch, 215-pound son go hungry or have to buy seconds and thirds in school when he can drive home and eat a homemade meal.

I want this mandate mess fixed for all kids. But since I only have a direct influence on my own kids, I’m going to make sure they are properly fed. A school lunch costs my son $2.10. For $4.20 to $6.30, I can prepare a great meal for him.

Since I can’t help every kid, I’m going to follow the lead of others and investigate food banks, backpack programs and other options that can meet the protein and grain needs of hungry kids. I am going to continue to contact elected officials.

And it’s not just food our kids need. Our kids need activities and movement. I volunteered as a high school track coach last spring. This year, I am volunteering with the 4-H Club for our daughters.

I can’t bring back more physical education, home economics and agriculture education into our schools by myself. But I can make a difference by getting involved to help more kids be active and doing my best to make sure they have food choices and are fed.

We have to create solutions. Our school can’t pull out of the federal lunch program. That seems like the easiest solution, but education funding is tied to food. The $74,000 our small rural school receives in Title I funds a teacher and aide’s salaries and some supplies. In order to receive these federal tax dollars, we must participate in the school lunch program.

It is up to you to create your own school lunch intervention. Decide what you can do and make a difference. Start small. Think big. Don’t stop working to create real solutions for hungry kids in our public schools.

Editor’s note: Pinke is from a 5th generation family farm and resides in Wishek, N.D. with her husband and three children.