School Lunches: A Significant Investment?

Millions of students and teachers went “back to school” this week, or will do so next week.  And this brings up all kinds of fond memories for me.  I loved the first day of classes as a kid: the hint of cool weather in the air, wearing new, crisp clothes, carrying a new lunchbox and book bag, anxious to see if I ended up in the nice or mean teacher’s class, wondering whether my friends would be there with me or I’d have to make new ones.

As a teacher, I enjoyed the one day of the year where hope springs eternal: when the books were new, the desks were clean, everyone had sharpened pencils, no one talked back, and the room still smelled fresh.

And as a principal, my favorite moment after a long hard summer of preparation was after I’d shaken all the little and big hands at the front door, checked in on all the classrooms, and finally sat down smiling at my desk mid-morning with a cup of coffee to savor just a few moments of peace and quiet – the new year always got off to a good start.

This year, the first day of school was on Monday, only I wasn’t going.  No longer the student, teacher, or principal, I was the mom.  I got up at 5:30 and padded out to the kitchen in my pajamas to blend the green smoothies before sending my sophomore and my senior on their way.  It was the last time I’d ever send them off to school together, a strangely poignant thought and one I felt compelled to share here, but not the point of this article.

The point of this article is, I make the smoothies because they ask me to, because they know it gives them the physical and mental edge they need to have a productive and happy day.  They know their school isn’t exactly a bastion of healthy habits, and if they’re going to fuel themselves properly, they need to make it happen before they go.

If you listen to the buzz coming out of Washington, though, you might think that school lunches actually are going to be healthy now!  This fall, new guidelines from our friends at the US Department of Agriculture are being implemented for school meal programs, guidelines that I’ve seen hailed as the best thing since, well, sliced white bread.  These changes are part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, signed into law two years ago by President Obama, and hailed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan as “the most significant investment in the National School Lunch program in more than 30 years.”

According to the new rules, calorie and sodium limits go into effect for the first time.  Schools are required to offer dark green, orange or red vegetables and legumes at least once a week, and students are required to select at least one vegetable or fruit per meal. Flavored milk must be nonfat, and there’s a ban on artificial trans fats.

Step in the right direction?  I thought I’d take a peek at next week’s local high school menu to see just how healthy it looks.

Breakfast options: sausage biscuit, chicken biscuit, cinnamon bun, bagel with cream cheese, fruit muffin, French toast sticks, mini pancakes with syrup.

Lunch options: Double hot dogs on bun, colossal burger, macaroni and cheese, spicy chicken wings with breadstick, spaghetti and meatballs with breadstick, boneless buffalo chunks with breadstick, chicken nuggets with breadstick – and, on various days, pinto beans, baked beans, tossed salad, apple crisp, sliced peaches, potato rounds, baby carrots, creamy coleslaw, kernel corn, tropical fruit mix, 100% juice.

What exactly is a “boneless buffalo chunk” anyway?  I don’t know… maybe the portion sizes are smaller, or the preparation is better.  But the only foods up there that are allowed in my kitchen are the pinto beans (probably not their version, though), salad (I suspect our salads have a lot more greens and variety), carrots, and fruit.  And juice.  Sometimes.

Yes, the mandates call for a few more veggies and whole grains, and they cut back on the calories and the sodium.  But what kind of veggies?  Have the nutrients been all but cooked out of them?  Define whole grains – are we talking quinoa, or Cheerios?

There is no bold proposal here.  There is no effort to truly increase the nutrient density of our children’s academic culinary experience in order to stem the serious health crisis our children face.  In fact, the food lobby has so much influence over Congress that French fries remain a regular staple on these menus, and pizza is considered a vegetable.  “No Child Left Behind” was ostensibly all about raising academic standards and holding schools accountable for helping students reach them.  Yet the government’s standards for the very food they offer those students are woefully below average.  If this is the most significant investment in the school lunch program that our government could come up with, then our leaders have earned a failing grade.

Of course, we really shouldn’t be relying on the government or the schools to provide for our children’s health.  Ultimately, it’s up to us as parents.  Those of us who know better know what to do.  We feed our own kids the best foods we can.  We make healthy choices in the grocery store and the farmer’s market, and send lunches with them instead of having the schools provide them.

But the reality is that for millions of kids, school meals will provide up to 2/3 of their daily food intake for 180 days a year.  That’s a third of their entire diet.  It’s sad that most of the food is garbage and has contributed mightily to our nation’s rising childhood obesity and diabetes scourges.

But there is an opportunity here, too.  If all those meals are currently contributing to the problem, what would happen if we could use those meals to solve it?

Think you can’t make a difference for the good of all our children?  Think again.

  • Check out Amy Kalafa’s book, Lunch Wars, and learn more about her and Susan Rubin, the Two Angry Moms and Institute for Integrative Nutrition grads who decided it wasn’t a hopeless cause to challenge the system.  Consider arranging a screening of their film in your community, and maybe even through your school’s PTA.
  • Look into bringing Wellness in the Schools into your community.  Founded by fellow former teacher, principal and Institute of Integrative Nutrition graduate Nancy Easton, this program is driven by the belief “that healthier bodies make healthier minds and that, conversely, unhealthy school environments interfere with student health, school attendance and academic achievement.”
  • Just go to your local school and talk with the principal.  Don’t go into the school complaining… believe me, between budget crunches, test scores, and government bureaucracy, the last thing a principal needs is a parent demanding that he do something about the lunch program.  But what we administrators love to hear are solutions from problem solvers, and from people willing to help.   Take baby steps and start slow, be informed, and be an advocate, not an agitator.  You can make a difference.

My sons have brought their own healthy food to school ever since I’ve known what healthy food is.  (Which, regrettably, hasn’t been all that long.)  There are millions of kids for whom this just isn’t an option, though, and we owe it to them to fight for the best.  Because as long as the food their schools serve is substandard, their education will be, too.

© 2012  The Wellness Wordsmith

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2 thoughts on “School Lunches: A Significant Investment?

  1. Pingback: “We Are Hungry” (…or are we malnourished?) « The Wellness Wordsmith Blog

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