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Food for Thought: School Lunches

October 25, 2012

I remember in Middle School (this was more than 10 years ago for me…oh gawd where has the time gone?!) that I would consistently put on weight throughout the school year–when I was required to eat school lunches (there was no “bring your lunch” option)–and then lose a significant amount of that weight during the summer, when I would get to be outside and be active. School lunches, by the way, consisted of such delightful treats (*coughsarcasmcough*) as white bread pizza and meatloaf surprise. This became such a health problem that my parents and doctor banded together to get me a pass to the salad bar at school (this was reserved for high schoolers and teachers only) and it created a minor uproar. “Why does she get to eat from the salad bar and we don’t?” kids would (rightly) demand from teachers and administration. And what were they supposed to answer? “Well, little Timmy, she is overweight and the processed crap that we serve all of you for lunch is exacerbating that and therefore we give her healthier options while the rest of you have to suffer.”



Times have changed since then–in that salad bars are now a (more) regular part of school provided options and schools are much more aware of what they are putting in children’s mouths because of the attention paid to the obesity epidemic–but, in many ways, times have not changed at all. And this scares and saddens me.

Recently, an article in the Times (via HuffPo) found that “calories in some N.Y.C. school lunches were below federal requirements” and here’s why:

According to teachers’ estimates, two-thirds of students in some public schools rely on school lunch as their primary source of caloric intake. Want to hear something else depressing (YES!) According to government data, between 16 and 33% of American children and teens are obese. What’s a school lunch program to do? If you’re New York City’s public school system, the answer is to cut calories so that the fat kids become less fat, to levels below federal caloric guidelines. But what about the kids whose only caloric intake comes from mystery meat and the mysterious creamy gravy of the chicken a la king? Are they supposed to subsist on the happiness that comes from knowing that Mayor Bloomberg is bravely battling child obesity?

The Times found that NYC has been skirting federal school lunch requirements for Lord knows how long and without the approval of the federal government, all under the banner of banishing child obesity. It’s not the quantity of calories that matter, argue school officials, it’s the quality. And even though public school kids weren’t technically getting what the government says they needed, nutrition-wise, officials say that the new lower caloric standards set by the federal government vindicate their judgment call.

Nutritional requirements for public school lunches are dizzyingly complicated, turns out. Schools are encouraged to offer salad bars, but salad bars don’t count toward meal calorie totals. The maximum number of calories allowed per meal is only 100 calories more than the minimum number of calories required per meal, and the number of calories to be served to students varies by the student’s grade level. New federal requirements demand schools serve students more whole grains and fruits and vegetables and less Cheetos Flambe, and chefs have been working in test kitchens to make sure that Our Children’s trays are loaded with only the most nutrient-dense of foodstuffs.

Huh. This is a strange scenario, to be sure. First of all, it makes me so sad that kids are so dependent on school lunches for nutritional content (and this is certainly not a new trend) and yet, until recently, little if no attention was paid to what kids were being served/had access to at school (thanks again, Michelle Obama!). So, it is incredibly important that schools are making the shift to “replace fries with baked potato strips” and the like. And while “city health and education officials said their aim was not to lower calories, but rather to increase the nutritional value of the foods reaching students’ mouths,” the fallout is that the caloric value has dropped below the legal USDA minimum while the nutritional value has been raised far above what it previously was. And so, of course, there is backlash about this. Some experts are saying that “If you are delivering better calories, then that is important,” while others are calling the move “reckless” and purporting that “It is based on politics and personal whims, not nutrition science…it is based on the city’s absurd belief that hunger no longer exists among children, despite federal data that proves that one in four New York City children live in food-insecure homes. The city’s one and only response to child hunger is taking food away from kids.”

It seems, though, that there should be a practical way to balance this situation. Now that it has been found that increasing nutritional value does not equal meeting caloric requirements, the teams in charge of making this shift in the first place will need to take the information into account and reevaluate their new school lunch plan. But, overall, it does seem like a shift in the right direction. And it is a shift that reflects a healthy mentality–focusing on nutrition and health rather than weight.  I know my 12 year old self would have been grateful.


(An interesting blog, although I’m not sure what the stance of the author is exactly, is “What’s for School Lunch?” in that it has pictures of school lunches, and their differences, from around the world.)



(Image courtesy of Ashworth Community)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Streetflash permalink
    October 26, 2012 3:47 pm

    This may be a inane question but why can’t they simple serve healthier food and make the portions larger?

  2. Sexy Curmudgeon permalink
    October 29, 2012 4:16 pm

    I think the key problem that this issue now faces is funding. Now that school lunch programs are beginning to see real improvements thanks to dietitians, chefs, Michelle Obama, etc., they’re facing the fact that better quality food is more expensive: it includes more fresh produce, which goes bad quickly, it often takes more preparation time, and fresh, healthy meals are harder to execute systematically on a large scale. As we’re now seeing in New York, you also need more of it to add up to the same caloric intake. This can all be done, but it takes money, i.e. both a government and a society that’s willing to make the necessary sacrifices for suffering, underprivileged children.

  3. Streetflash permalink
    October 30, 2012 7:54 pm

    Food not Bombs! I say we redirect military spending to elementary school salad bars! Who’s with me??!?!?!?!?

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