We don’t need a National Week to convince us that School Lunch is important, but it is a great reminder that the conversation must continue. In recent years, individuals and federal agencies alike have been examining our public lunch programs
, calling into question the efficacy of this long-established convention. While it’s widely accepted that lunch-- and nutrition in general-- is crucial to healthy adolescent development, many wonder whether school menus provide more of a help or a hindrance. So, in honor of National School Lunch Week, we take a look at the program from soup to nuts.The Nutrition FactsChildhood obesity has become a serious epidemic
, and school lunch programs have shouldered a great deal of the blame. They have earned a bad rap for serving up high fat, high sodium, calorie-dense foods that just barely meet dietary guidelines.
According to the Food and Nutrition Service (the federal tier of lunch programs) school lunches must abide by the recommendations of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, meaning no more than 30% of an individual’s calories come from fat and less than 10% from saturated fat. The lunches also must pack in one-third the Recommended Dietary Allowance of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories.
But anyone familiar with the infamous chicken-fries-with-potato-wedges meal might wonder whether these guidelines are actually being fulfilled. That’s the tricky thing about guidelines… they only guide; they do not mandate that schools use nutritional analysis to determine if they are meeting the RDA requirements. Furthermore, they do not hold schools legally or financially responsible if they do not meet these requirements.
Realistically, it would be difficult to determine, considering that the guidelines are not based on specific meals but rather a weekly average.
This lack of accountability is leading to a very evident problem, to the tune of a 17% childhood obesity rate. According to a study by the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, children who ate school lunch were 13.5% more likely to be obese than those who brought a lunch from home, consuming up to120 more calories. The former group is also 4.6% more likely to eat two or more daily servings of fatty meats (i.e. fried chicken or hot dogs) and 12.2% more likely to have two or more sugary drinks per day. The school lunch group also had higher levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, which can lead to a host of health issues. These statistics suggest that, despite the guidelines, the menus are lacking where health is concerned.School Lunch Budget Crunch
These dietary shortcomings aren’t pure oversight; they often reflect shortcomings in funding. In 2010, the National School Lunch Program served over 31.7 million children each day, for an annual cost of $10.8 billion. It sounds like a considerable chunk of change, but it breaks down to only about $341 per child per year, less than a dollar a day!
The budget is further strained by free or reduced-lunch programs, which have played an honorable role in feeding underprivileged students. When you consider that school lunch is perhaps the only square meal that these children see in a day, its nutritional quality becomes that much more important.
Unfortunately, in an effort to get their money’s worth, a lot of schools turn to frozen bulk products to feed their students, many of these products are as light in nutrients as they are on the wallet. Frozen dark meat chicken patties, salted and canned green beans, white bread, syrup-laden fruit cups… the menu options are less than stellar where nutrients are concerned.
The budget problem is justifiable, but the fear is that this excuse will inhibit schools from exploring viable alternatives. There are many ways to eat healthy on a budget, particularly when buying surplus commodities. If the schools tapped into area farms, they could stock their menu with fresh produce while supporting local economy. Initiatives like the Farm to School Network are already encouraging schools to look to local sources, even implementing federal grant programs to provide funding for farm-raised goods. Under the Influence
Where some farms are an asset, others pose a threat. According to the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, meat and dairy lobbies have a significant influence on federal policy and, thus, on the federally-funded lunch programs. This pressure all but forces the Secretary of Agriculture to purchase significantly more beef, pork and dairy products than other healthier options.
In 2001, that gap was exponential—The USDA spent more than double the amount on surplus cheese and beef as they did on fruits and vegetables. That disparity has carried over into 2011, and many modern lunches are still heavy on the animal products. While they provide a good source of protein and calcium, they also pack significantly more calories and can increase one’s risk of heart disease and some cancers, according to a study by The Imperial Cancer Research Fund. Depending on the source, many animal products are also laden with hormones and antibiotics, which could create developmental problems and antibiotic-resistance in children.
Those children who are less carnivorously-inclined are usually reduced to a peanut butter and jelly option, or a bagel with cream cheese, both of which lack important nutrients. Vegans have an even harder time meeting their nutritional needs through the school lunch program, perhaps because the USDA views these eating habits as a preference rather than a lifestyle. Or, perhaps, because the dairy industry is paying for that favoritism. Case in point, non-dairy items like soymilk or almond milk can only be obtained with a doctor’s note, undercutting those children who would rather have these options for their taste or health benefits. Many programs look to water as a default but, in doing so, they automatically eliminate an important source of calcium and nutrients for the non-milk-drinking students. Our federal policy, and children’s health, should not be so easily swayed by economic self-interest. An Appetite for Change
The first step toward improving this program is improving the efficiency with which it implemented; a good plan means nothing if you don’t have the resources and resolve to carry it out. Because school lunch is a federally funded program, the federal government needs to have a greater presence in its implementation. That means not only making it affordable, but also creating incentives for healthy lunch programs and repercussions for poor ones.
Some progress has been made under First Lady Michele Obama’s Let’s Move program. It has paved the way for initiatives like Chefs Move to Schools, where local chefs introduce new recipes and teach kids about the importance of nutrition; and Healthier US School Challenge, where schools can receive monetary encouragement for maintaining high food standards and participating in healthy food and fitness programs. The latter program ensures that schools have all the tools they need to fulfill Dietary Guidelines, including a menu planner that offers tips for increasing whole grains and produce while lowering sugar, sodium and fats.
The federal government also has the power to make healthy diets more accessible by taxing processed “junk foods”
and using that money to subsidize wholesome foods. It’s a controversial option but one that deserves our consideration. This might require that our culture, as a whole, reconsiders our approach to food and diet. Many of us don’t realize the significant impact that food has on health, particularly for growing children. It’s easy to brush off school lunches as just one meal a day, but that one meal eaten every day could set the tone for the rest of their adolescence. If we undermine the importance of eating healthy, how can we expect our children to develop good dietary habits?
If I’ve realized one thing in my experience with nutrition, it’s that the fundamentals of healthy eating are not common sense and do not necessarily come with age. (I’ve found myself trying to reason with successful business people who believe that Pop Tarts are a viable meal option.) This means that education is necessary to teach us what a proper diet looks like. Nutrition education programs, like those put into action by Let’s Move, could be an integral part in shifting our approach to healthy eating. Learning about elements like portion size, genetics and “good fat vs. bad fat” could have a monumental impact on our nation’s obesity and diabetes rates. Thinking Outside of the (Lunch) Box
We must also understand that we influence our children’s taste buds more than we think, and that can go either way. If we have a distaste for something (ie. greens, fish, whole grains), we might not require our kids to try it, or worse, share our aversion with them. This tendency could stunt our children’s palettes before they even have a chance to develop their own taste. Consider that schools serve up “kid-friendly” meal options like chicken fingers and PB&J because they are known to please the picky eater; but why not give them more opportunity to explore healthy alternatives? The idea of hummus and kale chips might seem off-putting to you, but a curious kid might be willing to give it a go… and, at a young age, they won’t harbor any preconceived distaste for it.
Ultimately, the school lunch issue can be resolved if we make it a priority and remain open to options that may buck the traditions of cafeteria cuisine. The importance of this endeavor goes beyond the food itself… good nutrition means fewer illnesses, which translates to better attendance, which sets the student up for to better academic performance, which could lead to better career success. It’s a long line of cause and effect that could help us build a healthier and more prosperous generation. But it all starts with a lunch tray and what we choose to put on it. It is in our best interest to choose wisely.