School Lunch Week pushes healthy food to combat obesity in low-income areas

Free has taken on a whole different meaning.

Saturday will mark World Food Day, a global effort to increase awareness of world hunger. As a precursor to this annual global event, this past week has been designated as School Lunch Week, making an effort to promote healthier food options on students’ lunch trays around the nation.

Locally, the Champaign and Urbana school districts have been campaigning for nutritious meals and snacks in a cost-effective manner for students coming from low-income backgrounds.

Such efforts are important in Champaign-Urbana because children of struggling families are more likely to grow up with obesity and general health issues due to a lack of healthy foods in their diet, said Jennifer Ivory-Tatum, principal of Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School.

With 9,363 students enrolled in the Champaign Unit 4 school district, 46 percent or 4,307 students receive free lunches, said Lynn Peisker, Champaign’s community relations coordinator. Six percent, or 962 of these students, receive reduced-cost lunches.

Similarly, of the 4,283 students within Urbana school district 116, 60 percent or 2,558 students receive free lunches, and 7 percent or 303 students receive reduced-cost lunches, according to Urbana School District 116.

This year, Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School and Prairie Elementary School initiated the local Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, Ivory-Tatum said. Under this program, the Urbana School District hosted a series of health-oriented events, such as the fruit kabob making, said Carol Baker, director of business for USD 116.

“The students really enjoy it, it’s a good opportunity for us to introduce them to fruits and vegetable they normally wouldn’t eat,” Ivory-Tatum said. “They’re really wiling to test the different kinds of fruits and vegetables we offer. Our goal is to expose them to things beyond what they typically eat, such as bananas, apples and oranges.”

The schools within the Urbana school district were chosen for a grant from the Illinois State Board of Education to advocate for healthy food choices because of the number of low income families in the area, Ivory-Tatum added.

Peisker said the requirements for the lunch program include the number of people in the household combined with the annual family income. If a student qualifies for a free or reduced-cost lunch, then the student is also eligible for a free breakfast or a reduced-cost breakfast respectively, she added.

Stig Lanesskog, Champaign school board member, said he does not think there are any downsides to the free or reduced-cost lunch program.

“I think that providing access to a quality meal is a good thing,” Lanesskog said.

In USD 116, the lunch program is not the only way of attaining healthy and nutritious foods for specifically students coming from a low-income background.

The school district provides meals throughout the day, suppers after school, snacks and a backpack buddy program, Baker said.

Along with the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School and Prairie Elementary School are part of a backpack buddy program, which fills a backpack full of food for students without easy access to nutritious foods for the weekend, Baker added.

“We want to make sure that our students are properly fed,” Peisker said. “Good nutrition is important for students to be ready to learn.”