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Originally published Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 3:49 PM

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Congress should invest in school lunches that are more nutritional

Congress' reauthorization of the federal school-lunch program appropriately emphasizes fruits, vegetables and whole grains as a healthy departure from pizza and mystery goulash, the Times editorial board says.

AS Congress takes up reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program, funding must be more realistic about the daily cost of feeding 31 million children.

Currently, the federal government spends $9.3 billion per year to ensure meals at schools across the nation. Much of that money is eaten up in salary costs for cafeteria employees. Schools are challenged to take what's left and build a tasty, nutritional lunch for less than the price of a latte.

President Obama proposes spending an extra $1 billion each year on child-nutrition programs including school lunch. But given pressures on the budget from bank bailouts to health-care reform, funding realistically must be lower.

But not by much.

The U.S. Senate response, a $4.5 billion spending increase during the next decade, isn't enough. More money ought to be added to an otherwise workable bill by U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. In addition to standard changes such as improved training for food workers and quicker alerts to schools about contaminated food recalls, the Senate bill would set new nutrition standards for all school food, from lunchrooms to vending machines.

This is a big deal. Children who eat school lunches are more likely to be overweight than children bringing lunch from home, according to a University of Michigan study. That's because researchers found children who eat school lunches are nearly four times more likely to consume fatty meats like hot dogs and fried chicken.

The result is growing rates of obesity and diabetes among school-aged children. A necessary counter ought to be Congress' financial imprimatur on the growing push to instill school meals with more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. For many students, the meal at school is the only one they'll get. It ought to be a nutritious one.

Better funding and healthier food should guide the school-lunch program.

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