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 proves that these regulations haven’t been as preventative as you might hope. It’s a disease that still threatens adults around the country.

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.

Over three-quarters of American adults aren’t meeting federal fruit and vegetable requirements, but their location may be to blame. Take California, for example, which has a relatively low prevalence of diabetes among adults. It’s the highest vegetable and fruit-producing state in the country, so it makes sense that it has the highest percent of adults that meet the federal veggie and fruit intake recommendation. Their easy access to fruits and vegetables allows them to meet these standards.

On the other hand, in Mississippi, only 5.5 percent of adults eat enough vegetables and 9.9 percent eat enough fruit. This is partly to blame for its chart-topping obesity rate. The state is notorious for its large food deserts. So even though meal nutrition requirements are helping to take care of American children during lunchtime, changes need to be made outside of school in order for them to lead healthy lives. Improved health education and easier access to nutritious food will help our students maintain healthier habits for throughout their entire lives.