3 Key Improvements to School Lunch

Given all the controversy surrounding the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and rebellion towards the new USDA guidelines, we wanted to share our thoughts.

First, we are pleased to see more fruits, veggies, and whole grains on school lunch menus.  These changes signify progress, and bring more awareness and attention to healthy eating.  This is good.

However, we see many opportunities for improvement, including:

Improvement #1 – Recognize No Size Fits All

One problem we have with the new guidelines is that they put children of certain grades into a single portion size bucket.  Any parent will tell you that simply won’t work.  My 4 year old sometimes eats as much as my 11 year old, depending on the day.  It varies based on where they are in their development, activity levels, metabolism, and also how big and how recent their last meal was.  Their appetite varies from day to day, as do their nutritional needs.

School lunch should provide for flexibility in appetite, regardless of grade.  The maximum calorie, protein, grains, and produce restrictions per grade should be dropped.

It’s ironic that the national school lunch program – which was founded to relieve hunger during the great depression and therefore founded on calorie minimums – has now swung the pendulum in the opposite direction.  With the new guidelines, our national school lunches are now based on calorie maximums.  Fifty years ago, we designed school lunch so children didn’t starve, and now we’ve designed it so children don’t become fat.   It’s clear that neither extreme works – perhaps the answer is somewhere in the middle?

What if we could start from scratch?   Take a blank canvas and completely redesign school lunch.  What would it look like to you?

The majority of parents that we’ve talked to say they want their children to eat a wholesome meal that sustains them throughout the school day.  They would say the most important thing to them about school lunch is that their child has enough food energy so he can focus, absorb, and retain what he is being taught.  If the lunch happens to be healthy, too, well that’s a bonus.

Without those basic minimum requirements in place, even the best-intended lunch program will inevitably fail.  It’s not nutrition unless they eat it!

Improvement #2 – Cook From Scratch

Like the rest of our nation’s food supply, school lunch in this country has sadly become a science experiment.  What is often available on the lunch line is not what many of us would consider REAL FOOD.  When we start over-analyzing the science of food – # calories, # fat grams, # grams protein, # milligrams sodium – all we do is give food scientists undeserved job security.

What happened to the joy of pure, simple food?

Just because a bag of Cheetos has a reduced sodium content that took 6 food scientists 8 months in a laboratory to figure out how to achieve, does not mean it is something we should feed out children.   It was Hippocrates who said “Food is Medicine.” but we have re-engineered and chemically manipulated food to such extent that it seems “Food is Science” is more accurate.  Somewhere along the way, we over-complicated food, and the disheartening realization for us all is that our children are paying the price.

The right solution – the ONLY solution - is to get back to basics.

We must do in school kitchens what every culinary school in America does – teach how to cook food from scratch.  Teach how to combine pure, raw, in-season ingredients with herbs and spices.  Teach how to saute, roast, bake and steam using a good old-fashioned stove NOT a microwave or hot box.

Prepared in this manner, food has all the vitamins and nutrition our children need to grow and learn.  Prepared in this manner, we wouldn’t need to count sodium grams or universally restrict calorie counts.  So all that money spent analyzing the science of food could instead be spent on developing fun and nutritious recipes, teaching cooking skills so children can be self-sufficient, growing school gardens that reconnect kids with the origin of food, and getting back to the basics of feeding our kids REAL FOOD.

Whether at school or at home, isn’t that how our children deserve to eat?

Improvement #3 – Include More Stakeholders

Any expert on change management will tell you how important it is to involve all stakeholders in a successful change effort.  The more stakeholders directly involved in the change, the greater its chance for success.

In terms of school lunch, the stakeholders include parents and kids, as well as teachers and schools, farmers and suppliers, non-profits, and our government.  The answer to a successful school lunch overhaul must involve these key constituents.  We would love to see more high-involvement activities incorporated into school lunch, such as:

  • cooking classes taught in the school kitchen
  • green thumb clubs to start up and maintain school gardens
  • food clubs to source and plan menus
  • nutrition education to teach kids about how foods make them feel
  • farm to school programs that teach the seasonality of food

Changing school lunch is a multi-faceted, comprehensive effort, involving much more than food on trays.  It requires a systemic change to the food environment, food influences, and food knowledge that exists in every child’s daily life. It’s time to stop narrowly obsessing about the science of the plate and instead start looking broadly at the bigger issue – our food environment.

To put all of this controversy in perspective, school lunch is only 20% of a child’s weekly total food intake.   It’s only 5 meals a week out of a total of 21 meals (3 meals/day X 7 days/week = 21 meals/week).   Rather than spending all this time, money, and energy on school lunch regulations, perhaps we should focus instead on two things:

1)     increasing ACCESS to fresh fruits, vegetables, and real food, and

2)     providing the EDUCATION needed to create lasting change

Eliminating childhood obesity and restoring our children’s health is going to take a village.  School lunch may be the place to start, but it’s only the beginning.

One thought on “3 Key Improvements to School Lunch

  1. LunchPackerAK

    Agree with many of the points, espe­cially the Cook From Scratch one. Many kids con­sid­ered the school lunches “gross” before the new guide­lines, and now the effort to squeeze out calo­ries by includ­ing not-so-fresh or over-cooked veg­eta­bles by food ser­vice con­trac­tors is not help­ing. Kids just throw them away. I think another impor­tant issue that is keep­ing kids hun­gry is how lit­tle time is given to ele­men­tary school chil­dren to eat lunch. Our school dis­trict allots 20 min­utes for lunch, which includes hand-washing and serv­ing time, leav­ing prob­a­bly 10 min­utes to eat for most chil­dren. No one can chew a salad in that time­frame, and cer­tainly not get sec­onds of veg­eta­bles. Schools really need to recon­sider their pri­or­i­ties from use­less assem­blies and repeat­ing the same mate­r­ial over and over to cre­at­ing a healthy sched­ule for the lit­tle brains.


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