3 Myths About School Lunch

Providing children with healthy food is a smart investment in our nation’s future, so it’s astounding that there’s room for debate on this issue. As politicians and food giants attempt to roll back the substantial progress made in child nutrition over the past few years, it’s important to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the new school lunch regulations. See below for three of the biggest myths facing the school lunch program today, and to get the facts behind the myth:

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Stereotype American school lunch. image via Sweetgreen

Myth #1: Healthy Regulations are Causing Schools to Lose Money

Critics of the healthy guidelines argue that 50% of School Nutrition Association members expect to lose money this year. However, what doesn’t get reported is that a whopping 65% expected to lose money in 2010, two full years before the healthy regulations took effect. The school lunch program was already a sinking ship, and while the new regulations haven’t completely saved it, they do seem to be helping.

Additionally, Dana Woldow found that this oft-cited 50% statistic is based on shaky data, at best. According to Woldow, “Fewer than 400 district nutrition directors, representing less than 2% of the 25,074 members surveyed, or less than 1% of the total 55,000 membership of SNA, said they expect to operate their meal program in the red this school year.”

When school district food service programs lose money, it is often because of a decline in school lunch participation. However, school lunch participation among students who pay full price (and aren’t eligible for free or reduced priced meals) has been declining since 2007, long before the healthy regulations were implemented. Additionally, this decline has actually started to level off a bit after the 2012-2013 school year.

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Actual lunch served at DCPS: Herb Crusted Tilapia, Whole Wheat Roll, Local Collard Greens, Red Cabbage Cole Slaw, Fresh Banana & Milk  (image via CSPI)

Myth #2: Kids Won’t Eat the New Healthy Lunches

School lunch has been the butt of jokes long before Michelle Obama took to fixing it. And while we all know that washing down chips and candy with a soda is a terrible choice for growing children, especially in a nation plagued with diet-related chronic diseases, the media has been overly sympathetic to critics mourning these changes, as if highly addictive junk foods were actually worthy of defense.

A survey of 557 schools in a variety of school districts found that although many respondents (56%) agreed that students complained about the new lunches at first, most (70%) also agreed that students generally seem to like the new lunches now. This study also revealed a fairly balanced picture of school lunch participation. According to the researchers, “only 4.3% of respondents perceived that ‘‘a lot fewer’’ students were purchasing lunch, whereas 6.2% perceived that ‘‘a lot more’’ were purchasing lunch.”

Studies are also finding that kids aren’t throwing away as much food as critics lead us to believe. A new study evaluated hundreds of lunches in an urban low-income school district both before and after the policy changes. According to the study, students are wasting significantly less food than they were before the healthy regulations went into effect, as kids ate significantly more of their vegetables (from 46% consumption in 2012 to 64% in 2014), entrees (from 71% to 84%), as well as slightly more fruit (from 72% to 74%) and milk (from 54% to 57%). Similarly, a study from the Harvard School of Public Health found a 23% increase in fruit consumption and a 16% increase in vegetable consumption after the new school nutrition guidelines were introduced in 2012. Contrary to popular belief, the study did NOT find a corresponding increase in food waste.

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Actual lunch served at Provo Schools in Utah: Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Homemade Marinara (image via CSPI)

Myth #3: School Lunches Aren’t Nourishing

The school lunch program has been under the microscope for years now, but the truth is that the new school lunches are actually much healthier than home packed ones. In a recent study, researchers analyzed over 1,300 lunches at three schools in rural Virginia. They found that lunches brought from home had more sodium and fewer servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and milk. Nearly 90% of the lunches from home also had a sweetened beverage, snack chips and dessert in them. Additionally, while a vocal minority has rallied against the protein caps set for school lunch, packed lunches actually have significantly less protein (as well as less fiber, vitamin A, and calcium). And to top it all off, the study found that lunches from home were more expensive than the school lunch offering at the elementary school level (although not consistently for middle schoolers).

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Actual school lunch: Teriyaki Chicken Rice Bowl with brown rice, steamed fresh carrots, zucchini, yellow squash and Teriyaki chicken. Served with fresh local apple slices, whole grain roll, ice cold milk, an orange, and a fortune cookie. (Image via CSPI)

Want to learn more?

  • This New York Times Magazine article from October 2014 explores the politics of the school lunch program, including the role of corporate lobbying.
  • This February 2015 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists quantifies obesity’s impact on healthcare costs, evaluates the effectiveness of the school lunch program (data was collected before the new guidelines were implemented), and identifies ways to strengthen the school nutrition program.
  • This webpage from the Center for Science in the Public Interest has plenty of infographics, factsheets, policy options, and resources for people trying to promote changes that support healthy lunches.

– Kelly

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