Advocate Editorial Board opinion: Serving healthy meals leads to healthy habits

Public schools have many responsibilities. The main focus should always be to provide the best education possible, but there are other needs that must be fulfilled as well. Every day, students file into school cafeterias for breakfast and lunch. But how nutritious is the food they find there?

Texas schools have already made some adjustments to offer more nutritional options in school vending machines by removing sodas and candy and replacing them with healthier items. Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released new requirements for school vending machines. Texas already meets several of these new regulations, but some changes, such as replacing sugary sports drinks with fruit juice, will still have to be made.

These nutritional requirements are a good start, but there are other changes the state needs to make. Removing sugary items and other foods with no nutritional content from vending machines addresses only a small part of the problem. Now, schools need to focus on the actual food served in the cafeterias.

In 2011, more than 31.8 million children received free school lunches nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each of those children come from homes where their parents struggle to provide enough food and money to feed their children adequately. The children get some help from the schools, which take part in a federal program that helps provide free meals, but how nutritious are these meals?

Yes, schools are required to serve a fruit or vegetable each day, and frying foods in grease is prohibited. But what about those rubbery chicken nuggets made from paste or the overly processed hamburger patties? Not only are many of these meals unappetizing, but the overprocessed nature also makes their nutritional value questionable. The children who receive free or reduced lunches may not have the opportunity to enjoy a nutritious meal at home, which places the burden of meeting their nutritional needs on the schools.

We encourage the state and federal governments to examine the kinds of foods being served in school cafeterias and look for ways to serve nutritious, enjoyable foods students will look forward to eating. Education is much more than teaching facts and figures to growing minds. Schools also have the opportunity to teach children how to properly balance their eating habits and show them that food doesn't have to be full of sugar, salt and preservatives to be flavorful and enjoyable. If schools take this chance and find ways to make school lunches both healthy and desirable, our children will be much better equipped to make good food choices in the future.

This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.