According to Kate Murphy in her New York Times article, Why Students Hate School Lunches, most of the new dietary regulated school food ends up in the garbage cans instead of in the students for whom it was prepared – mostly due to its unattractive nature and pallid taste. Since the 2010 mandate, there were so many kids opting out of school lunch, a 70 percent drop in school meal program receipts ensued, as well as an aversive increase in food waste. In response, many people have called for a revision of the stringent dietary guidelines to make the food more palatable.
A CNN article, Schools Struggle to Feed Kids Healthy Food, highlighted one mother who challenged members of Congress to try their local school’s cafeteria food before making decisions on how to create and fund future lunch programs.
School food advocates share that many of the improvement proposals still assume that every school cafeteria has a kitchen. Many school districts, such as those in San Francisco, haven’t had kitchens for over 25 years. So novel ideas like bringing chefs into schools to share their expertise may be exciting, but aren’t plausible if there is no place for them to cook.
LUNCH HERE AND ABROAD
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In France, where the childhood obesity levels are lowest in the Western world, a typical lunch includes a vinaigrette cucumber salad, salmon lasagna with spinach, baguette and fondue cheese, and a cup of fresh fruit. Once a week the kids get a piece of dark chocolate.
According to Jen Christensen, in the 2010 CNN article, the No. 1 meal served to children in U.S. schools was chicken fingers and French fries. Why? Processed food is much cheaper to serve than fresh produce. At that time, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that 94 percent of school lunches failed to meet the USDA regulatory standards. In response to this, the new U.S. federally approved school lunch offers a re-engineered Philly cheesesteak (low fat, low salt cheese and lean mystery meat), steamed green beans, potato wedge, canned peaches and an apple.
To make matters worse, American kids have typically 20 minutes to eat while their French counterparts often have up to 2 hours to eat. One Huffpost article proposes that if we saw what kids around the world eat, we might be tempted to have our kids study abroad.
Karen Le Billon, professor of environmental studies at Stanford University says unlike other less obese cultures, those meals include good fats which keep kids more satiated and less likely to snack. In contrast, we have become a culture of constant eating - and it’s not working to keep us healthy.
SLOW AND RANCOROUS CHANGE
In her post, The Sorry State of School Lunches: Students are Rejecting Healthy Options in the School Lunch Line, Kerry Song reminds us of all the years so many kids were fed Happy Meals and Lunchables. Despite the protests, she says that strict new nutrition standards on school food was a necessary course of action. In fact, supporters of the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act believed that kids would learn to appreciate whole-wheat tortillas and roasted vegetables and would have more energy and focus as a result. Obesity rates and other diet-related health issues would steadily decline.
But with the excitement and anticipation came new challenges with blindsiding consequences.
SCHOOL LUNCH FREEFALL
Song reports that the federally mandated changes to school lunches led to an unprecedented drop in the number of students eating lunch. In a Boston Globe article, How School Lunch Fight Will Shape America’s Future, John Sununu shares that decreased participation compounded by rising prices has forced many school districts to pass on some of the added cost to families — many of whom are struggling to pay current prices. And some schools, left with little choice, have simply dropped out of the federal school lunch program to fend for themselves.
While cafeteria many operators blame the rigid regulations that forbid them from serving semolina pasta or jasmine rice, or the butter/sauces that make foods flavorful, some schools are empowering the kids by adding stir fry stations, spice bars and promoting farm-to-table food. But fresh food costs money that many school districts cant afford.
By forbidding certain foods and coercively promoting others, some suggest that the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act actually perpetuated a subversive relationship with food. Students bring illicit food items to school, like chips and cookies, while others opt for off-campus fast food.
SETTING AND TIME
Marc Vetri, in his Huffpost article, Setting the Table for Better Minds, Better Bodies and Better People, says that food has the potential to empower children and inspire change. He contrasts the typical school lunch experience to a family meal, and asks whether we would put our family in a line, give them a tray of unrecognizable food and then let them eat it on the sofa while playing with their cellphones? If the scene is a breeding ground for chaos and bad habits, why do we allow this in school?
He says over the past 30 years, school lunch has deteriorated mainly because the programs focus on doing lunch faster and cheaper. We promote literacy and critical thinking, yet when it comes to providing kids the fuel for thinking and reading – quality food and an environment to eat it in - it remains elusive.
Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss, in her article Is 15 Minutes Enough Time For a School Lunch? exposes the lunch room eating race. In many schools, kids have little more than 15 minutes to gobble their lunch once they have waited in line and found an open seat.
As many districts move to bring healthier foods to their students to combat the obesity epidemic, they have done little to give kids a chance to eat slowly and actually enjoy what they are consuming. What’s more, some kids eat lunch before 10:30 a.m. because that’s what the schedule says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that students have at least 20 minutes to eat lunch — starting from when they actually sit down to eat and not from when they enter the cafeteria to get their food.
THE FUTURE OF SCHOOL LUNCH
Berry-flavored Jell-O is not fruit. While the days of serving mystery meat as an entree and classifying ketchup as a vegetable may be in the past, school lunches still have a long way to go when it comes to providing students with palatable nourishment. So what does the future have in store for the future of school lunches?
The fact that so many students have opted out of school lunch programs toward more unhealthy alternatives defeats the primary goal of the USDA standards and cuts needed revenue required to create healthy, appealing menus.
Song reports that in response to this observation, N.D. Sen. John Hoeven introduced the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act, which prevents further sodium reductions in school meals and restores USDA requirements from 2012 to give schools more flexibility to serve items like deli sandwiches, tortillas and pasta.
Washington Post writer Roberto Ferdman in his article, School kids are blaming Michelle Obama for their ‘gross’ school lunches, sheds some dark humor on the subject of the healthy meals. He says from a nutritional standpoint, kids were eating significantly healthier meals when the food was chosen by their school, rather than their parents who often sent high fat, high salt pre- packaged lunches. But based on smartphone photos taken by kids, it isnt surprising why so many public school meals are going to waste. Kids have always complained about school food, but the heightened levels might be due to social media and the public platform to share photos and comments. Such as this one: Had a very #healthylunch today. The apple definitely made up for the “mystery mush” #ThanksMichelleObama pic.twitter.com/RWCnQRCxJK
Huffpost contributor and founder of Revolution Foods, Kirsten Tobey says in her article What Happens When Students Love School Lunch, that school cafeteria food can be delicious, healthy, affordable and loved by students. She says while some schools struggle with overflowing trash cans of uneaten lunches, meals can be prepared with fresh food in local culinary centers with ingredients kids recognize, using home-style cooking techniques. The trifecta of nutrition, great taste and affordability takes time, commitment, and thought - but it is achievable.
Cameron Wells, in a U.S. News and World Report article, Schools Changing the Future of Healthy School Lunches, shares some innovative and successful lunch room ideas from a few creative schools.
There is no single easy fix to improving school lunches and it may be up to the individual school to find its own solution. Until then, all we are left with are the results of countless studies that demonstrate the power of proper nourishment on health, concentration, comprehension and academic performance. In contrast, poor nutrition leaves students vulnerable to illness, absences and unable to attend to academic focus.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.