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

Janet Poppendieck on School Lunch

“We have made serving lunch to children in school really complicated and inconvenient.” – Janet Poppendieck

This week, scholar, activist, and sociology professor Janet Poppendieck visited BU for a lecture titled Universal Free School Meals: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. I am embarrassed to admit that when I first saw the advertisement for this lecture, I interpreted it to mean that Poppendieck thought that the time was up for school lunch, and that school lunch was perhaps a fruitless pursuit.

Thankfully, I read Poppendieck’s new book, Free For All: Fixing School Food in America, and quickly discovered that I was wrong.  Poppendieck’s central argument is that a universal free lunch would help to alleviate many of the ills associated with school food, and she gives well-researched examples of why this may be.

Admittedly, the book started off as a repetition of things that I already knew about the school lunch program. School food today is often frozen and prepackaged. Menu choices are often carnival foods such as fries and pizza. The history of the school lunch program as a commodity program has allowed it to become this way.

However, Poppendieck’s discussion of the problems with means testing and the tiered eligibility system in chapter 7 introduced a new wave of thought to me. Poppendieck argues that the 3-tiered system breeds resentment and cheating, and also creates problems that interfere with the purpose of the program. To this point, I knew that students in the reduced price category oftentimes do not have enough money to pay even the reduced price. However, I was surprised to learn that 21% of families with very low food insecurity (formerly known as food security with hunger) have incomes too high to qualify for free or reduced price lunches. This shocking statistic is surely the sign of a broken system.

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Fruit & Veggie set up (typical of what I saw in Austin Independent School District)

While universal free lunch might sound fine and dandy, the biggest question I had was about how a multibillion-dollar program like that would get funded. Luckily, Poppendieck did address the financial issue. “There is no such thing as a free lunch, but how we pay for it is a social choice,” she said to the audience. While her book, written at the peak of the economic downturn, mostly focused on federal funding programs, Poppendeick’s lecture included evidence that states can also play an important role. She gave recent case studies of universal free programs in both Vermont and West Virginia, and also discussed the effects of recent legislation, such as the Community Eligibility Option under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.

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Balanced salad from Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District

Poppendieck also emphasized the importance of integrating the lunch hour into the school day as a way to promote better health and a place to learn social skills and etiquette. “The cafeteria is our largest classroom,” Poppendieck said, quoting an educator from Vermont. Chapter 8 of Poppendeick’s book also gives several inspiring examples of schools that are using the lunch hour as a learning tool and a jumping off point for hands on education.

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Oatmeal sundae bar in Provo

Whether or not you think that universal free is the right direction to go (I’m still on the fence about the whole funding issue), I highly recommend Janet Poppendieck’s book. It is a great summary of all of the factors affecting the school lunch program today, and gives an excellent history of how it came to be for those that are interested but don’t have much experience with the program. After being fortunate to converse with Poppendieck both before and after the lecture (and get my book signed!), I am now interested in reading her other two books: Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement and Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression.

Images via UCPress, CSPI Pinterest Page

To learn more about the challenges facing the lunch program, as well as the progress that has been made, see my previous post about school lunch.

– Kelly

School Lunch

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Tomato soup, chicken with brown rice, fresh garden salad, an apple and low-fat milk from Burlington, VT schools. YUM! (here)

School lunch gets a bad rap, and it wasn’t always undeserved. But if you have visions of chicken nuggets and pizza, you must not have stepped foot in a cafeteria lately. School lunch ain’t what it used to be. Under the new school nutrition standards, there must be a greater amount of fruits and vegetables (and a greater variety), 50% of grains must be whole grain rich by July 2012 (and 100% by July 2014), milk must be either 1% (low fat) or skim (nonfat), and only nonfat milk can be flavored. Additionally, there are now standards for sodium and calorie levels (there used to be no maximum for either), and there must be 0g trans fats per serving (no previous restriction). Despite some concern over the new school guidelines, I applaud these changes, as they are absolutely a step in the right direction.

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Beautiful meal from Portland, Oregon. (here)

Room for improvement: The new school nutrition standards are no doubt a victory for childhood nutrition, but there are still some problems to be worked out. These are the biggest challenges facing school lunch today. And yes, sadly enough, pizza sauce does count towards the vegetable requirement…

  • School lunches are definitely getting healthier. So why can your child still eat chicken fingers and french fries for lunch everyday? Two words: Competitive foods. Foods from vending machines, snack bars, and fast food chains are not a part of the National School Lunch Program, and therefore are not subject to the school nutrition standards. If we really want to create a healthy environment for our children, we need to set stricter standards for competitive foods as well. (here)
  • Unfortunately, the increased amount of fruits and vegetables on lunch trays is often correlated with the increased amount of fruits and vegetables in trash cans and compost bins. Acceptability of healthy foods is a complex issue, and it takes time to adjust. My suggestions? Get more kids to eat lunch after recess, instead of before, so that they are not rushing through lunch to go out and play, and they come in hungrier and ready to eat. Additionally, interactive nutrition programs that teach children the importance of a healthy diet, as well as where their food comes from, will be beneficial when trying to get children to embrace healthy foods. And don’t forget that acceptability starts at home! Model positive eating behaviors for your children, and encourage them to try new foods frequently. (here)

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Navajo tacos on a whole wheat bread with from scratch chili, and topped with all the fixings, at Centennial Middle School in Utah. Looks delicious! (here)

Innovative Ideas: The new school nutrition standards present their share of challenges for schools trying to implement them. Here are some clever ways to combat challenges and make every student healthier. 

  • Hector P. Garcia Middle School has fought back against competitive foods by offering healthier choices at after school concession stands. (here)
  • Elkins Middle School is improving breakfast participation by serving breakfast later, grab & go style. (here)
  • Lafayette Parish School System is trying out healthy lunch vending machine kiosks to help combat the logistical issues of serving healthy meals. (here)
  • Hall High School students taste test new cafeteria food in order to increase student education of the school food service system, as well as make sure that student needs are being met in dining halls. (here)
  • Pajaro Valley Elementary School utilizes recess fruit carts with nutrition education as part of their farm to school program. This approach is popular with students, and doesn’t infringe on precious classroom time. (here)
  • This study demonstrates that catchy names for healthy foods increase children’s selection and consumption. What a simple way to help nudge children in the right direction! (here)
  • Chefs in schools are improving student’s knowledge of healthy foods and food preparation, as well increasing student interest in healthy eating. (here, here and here)

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Beautiful veggie hummus wrap from Ashland Public Schools in Massachusetts.  (here)

Can’t get enough?

  • All of the images above are from the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Pinterest page. Check it out to see images of successful healthy lunches from around the country, as well as get the facts on school lunch.
  • Want better school lunches in your area? Click here for all of the resources you need.

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Scene from the trenches: My 6 weeks managing an elementary school cafeteria in 2012, just as the school nutrition guidelines were getting finalized.

– Kelly