It’s been a while since I wrote The Massive Disgusting School Lunch Issue. Some folks hate that post. I’ve gotten emails claiming I’m out to get schools and that most schools DO serve quality food to kids. So, I figured it’s time to update the stats. I wrote the post linked above back in August of 2010. That means schools have had two years to pull it together. Let’s see how they’re doing…
The good news about school lunches
- In January of this year, the USDA decided to officially (and finally) make some major changes to school meals. This was a massive move, the first in 15 years, and in some ways the new guidelines are way better. Some of these guidelines include offering both fruits and veggies every day of the week, offerings more whole grain foods, offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties, limiting calories to ensure proper portion size and making sure to reduce the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium found in school meals.
- The new school lunch rules also aim to help limit rising childhood obesity statistics. So, that’s a good thing.
- As the new rules go into affect this year, schools are scrambling to meet the new requirements, but many schools do appear to be on top of it, with at least a menu game plan in place.
- Farm to school programs have increased, bringing more fresh goods to kids across America. Overall, the USDA will be investing more funds in farm to school programs across the country in order to help improve the health and well being of their students, as well as support connections with local agricultural producers.
The bad news about school lunches
School lunches still feature messed up nutrition:
A recent article based on the California school lunch program, shows that most CA school districts got high marks for serving foods with key nutrients but that, “30% of school districts exceeded the saturated fat limit. Four out of five districts exceeded recommended sodium levels and more than 200 of about 860 districts and charter schools reviewed failed to meet three or more nutritional standards.” Other articles say the same about other USA school districts – CA is not the only state with issues.
Screw the new rules – schools let kids dictate the menu:
The rules for school lunches may have changed, but that doesn’t mean your kid will be getting healthier fare and it’s your kid’s fault to boot. Evidently low nutrition food is not the USDA’s fault. It’s not the school district’s fault. It’s your kid’s fault. An L.A. based article notes that schools don’t serve healthy fare, because kids only like “kid-friendly” food like pizza, brownies, french fries and chicken nuggets. Other articles note much the same – that schools serve unhealthy food because plain and simple, kids won’t touch healthy food.
The L.A. article notes, “Introduction of healthful school lunches has been a flop.” This particular district got rid of junk food like chocolate and strawberry milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other food high in fat, sugar and sodium and started making healthy changes, serving more vegetarian options plus healthy exotic choices like quinoa salads and pad Thai noodles. However, kids were rejecting the lunches left and right. According to the district, participation in the school lunch program dropped by thousands of students, there’s massive waste going on, and because kids aren’t eating, many are supposedly suffering from, “Headaches, stomach pains and even anemia.” Apparently, there’s also a huge “underground market” at schools for chips, candy, fast-food burgers and other taboo fare. The district’s solution – give up. The district is now revising their healthy menu to include burgers every day so kids will eat.
I don’t buy it. Kids eat when they’re hungry and when they’re served quality food. I also fail to understand the lack of a backbone in school districts that pull healthy food. Schools have been serving poor quality lunches for years. Change takes time. Kids need to get used to healthy choices, but they won’t if schools pull those choices away. Adults need to act like adults, and serve the best food possible, and deal with it until kids get on board.
Schools don’t allow real silverware:
In what may be the most shoddy excuses ever for poor quality school lunches, one California school district’s kitchen manager, Katie Betts, recently said she would favor fresher, healthier foods but, “Chaotic mealtimes necessitate foods that children can hold in their hands. You don’t want to serve children a chef salad and have them eat it with a spork.” Schools are holding back healthy food due to a child’s inability to hold a real fork? Really?
Are kids really this dumb? My peers and I used real silverware, not plastic sporks all through school and never once did someone get stabbed with a fork or hit with a spoon. Research shows that most school districts nowadays use cheap, disposable plastic utensils in lunches vs. real flatware. Schools note that it’s safer, less expensive and easier to use disposable utensils. Plus many schools now lack the resources to use and wash reusable serving ware. Plastic silverware gets a D- for kid respect and eco-living.
Pink slime – now optional?
Pink slime meat will no longer be served at some schools. Notice I said some. The decision to remove pink slime meat is now optional, which means at schools where parents fail to get highly involved, the schools will likely still serve it. A pink slime meat ban would have been optimal.
Few proper vegetarian options – zero vegan choices:
Kids who eat school lunches have vegetarian choices but they’re lackluster and jam packed with cheese. In fact one of the vegetarian choices offered in my city includes bread sticks stuffed with cheese (pdf). Seriously? My son has been a vegetarian since birth, and not once have I considered serving him bread stuffed with cheese as a main dish. Because every single veggie choice contains cheese, it leaves vegan kids out of the loop entirely. It’s tough to even get soy milk on the lunch menu.
To sum up…
I’d have to say, school lunches are improving which makes me hopeful, but there’s a lot of work to be done. Because the 2012-2012 school year is the first year that schools will be trying to comply with the new healthier school lunch rules. It’s too early to tell what’s going to happen. One of three things may happen at your school:
- Your kid’s school may come up with a great, healthier, more attractive school menu. Serve it and stick to it.
- Your kid’s school may come up with a great, healthier, more attractive school menu. Serve it, find that the kids won’t eat, give up and go back to corn dogs and burgers.
- Your kid’s school may not try at all to come up with a healthier, more attractive school menu. We really don’t know what will happen to schools that fail to comply yet.
The above said, what is hopeful is that although school lunch menus are utterly lacking decent vegetarian choices, they are looking a lot better as of late. Seattle’s amazing lunch menu even includes organics and local fare!
What you can do…
It’s far too early to tell if the new school lunch rules will make a difference. As a parent, it’s your job to make sure your kid is eating well – and by well I mean healthy.
You have to go to your child’s school, at lunch and see what’s up. There’s no other way to know if the food is decent. Even if you see the school menu, it’s not enough. Go visit your child for lunch, eat the food then make a decision about if he should eat school lunches or a packed lunch.
The real question is… Would you eat school lunches?
Typically, kids spend 13,680 hours in school during their early years – that’s about 1,700+ days – or a whole lot of school meals. Would you want to eat these meals every day, just like your kid does? Not sure what kids lunches really look like? Visit your kid’s school or check out Fed up with lunch, a blog I’ve mentioned countless times. Written by “Mrs.Q” this blog chronicled one teacher’s year of eating school lunches, just like her students, day in and day out and she took pictures of all of them. The results were usually pretty scary.
In fact you can take a quiz of what the heck she was eating at CNN or see the new book Fed Up with Lunch: The School Lunch Project: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Truth About School Lunches. Now, if you could stomach what your kid is eating for about 1,700 days then by all means, have him eat school lunches. However, if the idea bothers you, why not send a decent packed lunch to school.
All images by USDAgov