Tag Archives: pendulum


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.