While we’re all sitting and waiting for Washington DC to decide the fate of school lunch, (and, if you haven’t yet, would you please give your representative in the House a poke? See the links at the bottom*) I thought it would be helpful if we discussed some ways that lunch could improve right now, immediately. I read a lot of blogs about food and nutrition, and one particular post entitled The Chocolate Milk Mistake got me thinking about a fundamental problem in school nutrition programs, a problem we could address right away.
It’s an issue of philosophy, really. School nutritionists, understandably, are most concerned about kids who depend on school lunch and breakfast; those who might not get dinner in the evening or even meals over the weekend. It’s to be expected that their primary focus is to get these kids to eat! In response to this concern, school districts seem to have adopted the philosophy that “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” (sometimes literally.) Many schools offer foods that meet the USDA standards, disguised as treats and snack foods that appeal to the broadest range of children possible. (This explains the pancakes, cookies, nuggets and nachos.) While this helps with the immediate issue of childhood hunger, we lose ground later as children learn to expect an all-treat diet. Struggling families especially, don’t have the resources to choose a fiber-enriched, vitamin-enhanced snack over one that has no redeeming value at all.
Since schools are institutions of learning, it's reasonable to ask that they offer children a window into appropriate eating. Yes, there are severe roadblocks in the way: the program is underfunded in the extreme, and labor, equipment, and supplies compete with food for the same money – but let’s look at another lunch program funded by the Child Nutrition Act, which I've written about before. The USDA’s Summer Food Service Program can be hosted by any organization willing to take responsibility for running the program (government agencies, churches and other nonprofits, private schools, universities, etc.) The USDA provides training and “meal patterns” which are reasonable and simple to follow: 1 cup of milk, 2 servings of fruit/vegetables, 1 serving of meat/meat alternate, and 1 serving of whole or enriched grains. In general, a lunch might include a white-bread sandwich with lunch meat, a small salad, a piece of fresh fruit, a cup of fruit juice, and a cookie and chips, offered with milk. Yes, there are sugary and salty treats – but neither are an integral part of the main part of the lunch – the protein and vegetables or fruits.
If I could change one thing about school lunch, it would be this: don’t incorporate treats or treat-like foods into the main part of a meal. In my opinion, one sugary and one salty treat per meal are acceptable, but what is most important is that the main focus of the meal be differentiated (no pancakes with cookies, and no nacho cheese dip with chips, etc.) To further communicate the importance of moderation, I think it’s reasonable to ask kids to choose either the sugary treat or sweetened flavored milk. With the exception of the flavored milk rule, this doesn’t require an overhaul of the entire school lunch system, it just follows what’s being done in summer!
While I understand that nutritionists worry about hungry kids, it’s important to allow all kids to develop a healthy food aptitude. Kids need to learn to respond to hunger by eating a balanced meal, and not just to eat because food tastes good. We know children rarely make good choices under pressure - and we know the lunch line is a high-pressure situation, but there are better ways to help ease their anxiety. Parents and teachers can help school nutritionists with lunch, just by showing kids what’s for lunch - even if the kids can’t taste or touch the food during the demonstration. Parents can ask their school districts to provide a photographic menu, so kids can have a concrete idea of what to expect. Both parents and teachers can use their own snack times to let kids open milk cartons and peel oranges; or to show them how to bite into a whole apple - these are all things they need opportunity, practice, and time to learn.
Most importantly, parents need to remember that the most popular lunches will set the tone for the entire menu – so, vote for your school district’s best efforts with your lunch dollars! If we view school lunch as yet another learning opportunity, I believe we can make a big difference in how kids eat when they become adults.
*Write to your Representative in Washington about the Child Nutrition Act:
Congress.org - one-click to write your own letter to federal or state officials
Slow Food USA Time For Lunch Petition
Bread for the World - Child Nutrition Act Petition
Parents Against Junk Food Petition