Edited to add:

Some of the poorest students in the United States live in food deserts.which are parts of the country lacking easy access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods. These food deserts are a threat to health, safety and receiving a quality education.

Posted by Natalie Morin

U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr Commons

Now that the new school year is in full swing, many parents are back to the familiar ritual of preparing lunch for their children. But of the 50 million children who recently went back to school, 20 million are eligible for free lunch. These are children who live in poverty and rely on government assistance programs to provide them with healthy, balanced meals.

The National School Lunch Program, as well as the School Breakfast Program, have grown quickly over the past few decades and have benefited millions of children across the nation.

Using the most recent 2011 data from the Health Indicators Warehouse (HIW), HealthGrove mapped the percentage of public school students who are eligible for free lunch in The United States.

Three years ago, the USDA updated its school lunch regulations to include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Depending on the grade level, students were required to receive 2.5-5 cups of fruit, 3.75-5 cups of vegetables, 8-12 ounces of grains, 8-12 ounces of meat or meat alternates, and 5 cups of milk per week. This would amount to about 550-650 calories a day for grades K-5, 600-700 for grades 6-8 and 750-850 for high schoolers. But healthy food is expensive. In fact, this year’s School Nutrition Trends Report found that 69 percent of the districts it surveyed reported that these rules have harmed their meal programs.

Though these sodium and fat-fighting regulations are a financial strain on school districts, they are critical to promoting healthy lifestyles in children. If taught early in life, balanced eating habits can influence long-term behaviors and decisions. One look at HealthGrove’s map of Type 2 Diabetes prevalence shows the dangerous result of poor nutrition (among other factors).

If the free lunch program regulations are making an effort to give students healthier options, why are the same parts of the country that see a prevalence of students receiving free lunch still seeing high diabetes rates?

This seems to highlight the fact that though students’ nutrition is cared for in school, finding a way to keep that balance in their meals outside of school is not as easy. Parents may live in “food deserts,” meaning they don’t have access to healthy produce, or if they do, they may not be able to afford it.

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