Cafeteria Chronicles: An Update On School Lunches
This is a guest post by Joy Paley. I asked her to write the post because it’s a subject that I think is extremely important but not one that I know much about.
Remember lunches from your school days? You had to brave the week of mystery meat chili and goopy mac and cheese with only-pizza Fridays to make it all worthwhile. These days, the food might be more appetizing, but it’s certainly not healthier: fried chicken, hamburgers, french fries, and chips have become a staple of many cafeterias.
With childhood obesity rates continuing to rise, some parents, school workers, and law makers have finally taken notice of the excuse for food that kids across the nation eat in the cafeteria every day. The battle cry for healthier, more wholesome lunches is growing louder, and schools are getting creative in an attempt to not only get better food into the cafeteria, but to convince kids that they want to eat it.
After all, school is supposed to be a place to teach kids life skills. In today’s processed-food world, wholesome, healthy meals should be part of the curriculum if we expect kids to eat better.
So how did it get to the point that kids are basically eating the equivalent of a fast food meal in the school cafeteria?
In a word, money, but time constraints and infrastructure issues have also played into it. Schools have to feed kids on an incredibly tight budget, at less than $1 per kid. If you’ve been to the grocery store lately, you know that it’s not easy to assemble a balanced meal with fresh produce for that amount.
This money problem leads cafeterias to buy a lot of their produce and meat from the USDA’s commodities program, a program that was started to buy up excess food during the Great Depression to keep prices steady. USDA commodities aren’t exactly the freshest, most nutritious food; a lot of it consists of processed meat products.
Combine the need to make meals cheaply with the sheer number of kids that need to be fed, and it’s obvious why many cafeterias switched to re-heatable convenience items like hamburgers and french fries. Unbelievably, many cafeterias don’t even have the ability to actually cook anything. Over the years, the necessary cookware has aged and become unusable, and it hasn’t been replaced because of the reliance on these ready-to-eat staples.
With these tough constraints, the school lunch situation might seem impossible to solve. However, parents and some innovative cafeteria chefs aren’t taking no for an answer. All parts of the old-school cafeteria menu are getting scrutinized. Those that don’t make the cut are either getting modified or getting the boot all together.
Take something as simple as chocolate milk. You thought it was healthy, right? Full of calcium and vitamin D? That might be true, but it also has almost as much sugar as soda or juice, and educators and parents argue it’s got no place on a child’s lunch tray. Some school districts have taken to banning this age-old staple of cafeteria lunches. You won’t find any chocolate milk in District of Columbia and Berkeley, California schools, and Florida schools are considering banning it as well.
While cutting out the bad stuff is good, you’ve got to give the kids something better to eat in its place. In this vein, many schools are jumping on the local/organic bandwagon and pairing up with local farms to bring wholesome, fresh produce into their lunchrooms.
The program is called Farm to Schools, and recently, it’s spread like wildfire nationwide. According to the organization’s website, the number of programs has doubled since 2007. Nearly 10,000 schools have joined the local food buying initiative.
You can put an apple on a tray next to a hamburger and french fries and regular milk, and you’ve still got a pretty unhealthy meal, though. Some have taken to revamping the entire cafeteria meal altogether, insisting that it is possible to develop healthy meals on a tiny budget.
Chef Ann Cooper, the “renegade lunch lady” has brought gourmet, healthy menus to Boulder, Colorado schools. In her lunch room, garlic lemon chicken, fish tacos, and hummus take the place of the usually greasy fare. A recent survey by the School Nutrition Association showed that overall schools have been following this food-bettering trend and have increased the whole grains and fresh produce in their meals.
An Example to Follow
So what does a complete and successful school lunch program look like?
Kids have gotten used to eating what tastes good, and any parent will tell you that it’s not easy to introduce kids to new foods and get a positive reaction, much less change their personal habits. A few schools in Berkeley, California, however, have introduced a truly integrated food program that seems to be getting to the heart of the matter.
Does your kid know what chard is? How about kale? At Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, they do. The school actually has its own acre garden, called The Edible Schoolyard. Students attend sessions in the garden and learn about the food that’s grown and served to them at lunch. They also have classes in the kitchen, where they learn about nutrition and how to prepare meals. All processed food have been banned from the lunch table, and all food served is made from scratch. The idea behind the program is that getting kids invested in all aspects of food will lead to better eating habits.
New research is showing that this integrated approach, which addresses the entire food cycle, is actually paying off. Students in the program make healthier food choices on their own than kids not in the program; they ate 1.5 more servings of fruit and veggies per day and scored higher on nutrition tests than their counterparts.
What Can You Do?
Maybe you can’t plant the garden at your local school, but there are still a few things you can do if you feel that all kids deserve a shot at loving food as much as you do.
If you’ve got a kid in school, check out their lunch menu, even if you pack their lunch. Not all kids have the luxury of a bag lunch (and, when your kid gets to high school, they’ll most likely still have the option to buy their own tasty chicken fingers, even if you’re still dutifully packing their food). If the food at their school is not up to snuff, consider contacting an administrator to voice your concern.
You can also contact your senator and urge them to pass the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act. The multi-billion dollar act would set new nutritional guidelines for meals, expand nutrition education, and make more kids eligible for reduced-price lunches. While the Senate has already passed a version, the House has passed a more inclusive one, and now the two have to be rectified.
For the love of food, do your part to help put this cafeteria-lunch change in motion.
From Nick: Leave a comment if you have kids or know about the cafeterias in your area. I’d be interested to hear how you think your school lunches stack up!
Photo by chidorian.