School is nearly out for the summer. And that means thousands of children who rely on free or reduced price school meals are at risk of going hungry. That's why there's a USDA-funded summer meals program. In Rhode Island, the program serves an average of 300,000 meals each summer. The City of Providence serves well over 120,000 such meals, at sites throughout the city, including parks, recreation centers, and schools. These programs are a lifeline for families struggling to make ends meet. But are they helping families become healthier?
Perhaps you caught a story this morning on our station from reporter Blake Farmer, in Tennessee. His story ("This Summer, The Cafeteria Comes To The Kids") profiled a summer meals program in Murfreesboro that sends school buses converted into mobile dining rooms into poor neighborhoods to serve breakfast and lunch right on board.
It struck me as a great service, especially to parents who work, don't have transportation, or for whatever other reason can't or don't want to bring their children to a meal site. But something else struck me in Farmer's story:
"And the bus is air conditioned so kids don't have to sweat through their Lucky Charms and chocolate milk. Yes, that's considered a nutritious breakfast by the USDA."
Lucky Charms, chocolate milk? A nutritious breakfast?
Here's the nutrition label on a box of Lucky Charms, made by General Mills.
The cereal may be "fortified" with vitamins. But it's also full of sugar. The American Heart Association recommends preschoolers consume no more than 16 - 17 grams of sugar a day. It's not much more for a kindergartner or a second grader. If a four-year-old eats a bowl of Lucky Charms, and drinks a cup of juice and a box of chocolate milk, she'll be well over that limit.
It's becoming clearer and clearer that too much sugar is bad. Eating lots of sugar in early childhood--especially in sugar-sweetened drinks - may set you up for problems down the line, including obesity, diabetes, dental problems, and possibly even high blood pressure.
But USDA guidelines for acceptable breakfast menus, meaning what the federal government will pay for or reimburse, leave a lot of wiggle room for excess sugar:
Federal school lunch and breakfast programs have come a long way, it's no doubt. But perhaps they can come even farther, fighting not only hunger but poor health.