Are we making school meals great again?

Have school meals ever been great for our children? I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever been enthused by a school lunch. As a dietitian nutritionist, I have worked in Headstart (preschools) and after-school programs evaluating the quality of school snacks and lunches, and can attest to the fact that the food we feed our children in schools is usually not delicious, nutritious, nor high quality. Under the Obama administration, nutritionists, the medical community, and concerned parents experienced unprecedented support to improve the nutritional quality of the food we serve our children. Using school lunch policies and the Let’s Move Campaign, Mrs. Michelle Obama and the Obama administration dedicated resources to promoting the health of our children through balanced eating. While there were obvious challenges in changing school lunch menus, independent studies conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that improvements were being steadily achieved in providing better nutrition for our children. You can read Marion Nestle’s short and sweet post on the improvements we’ve made under the Obama administration’s rules for school food. Granted, by the end of the Obama Administration, our school lunches were still not yet ideal; however, they were well on their way to being great with the help of regulations that adhered to dietary recommendations for improved health.

    photo: Vogue

Under the Trump administration, we are experiencing a retrenchment of policies and a reversal of the progress we made in improving the nutritional quality of the food we feed our kids. On May 1, 2017, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “will provide greater flexibility in nutrition requirements for school meal programs in order to make food choices both healthful and appealing to students.” Flexible, appealing and healthful food for our children – sounds great, right? I wish that were the case, but in reality, by relaxing the standards of school lunches, we are putting our children in harm’s way. Why do I make such a strong statement? How can lunch be harmful to a child? It is simple. All we need to do is to look closely at some indisputable facts.

Due to obesity, we may see the 1st generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life than their parents Click To Tweet

The facts – no sugar coating

  • Since the 1970s, the percentage of obese children in the U.S. has tripled (1,2,3,8)
  • 1 out of 3 children is obese or overweight (1)
  • 1 out of 5 school-aged children (ages 6-19) is obese (2, 3,)
  • The rates of diabetes type 2, hypertension and other diet-related chronic diseases are increasing in children (1)
  • Children who are obese/overweight now are more likely to be obese/overweight as adults (1)
  • Obesity affects the “heart and lungs, muscles and bones, kidneys and digestive tract, as well as the hormones that control blood sugar and puberty (4)”
  • Children who are obese or overweight also suffer from increased emotional and mental health burdens (1, 4)

 

Where can we go from here?

We need healthy, well-balanced and delicious food in our schools. By feeding our children delicious and nutritious school lunches, we are fighting against the obesity epidemic by increasing the amount of nutrient-dense foods our children have access to. Many children, especially children from low-income families, can only access nutritious food if it is given to them at school. If our children cannot rely on receiving well-balanced, nourishing meals in schools, how can we hope to reverse the obesity epidemic and the chronic diseases that come along with it?

While this may sound like a political piece, my intention in writing this is simply to highlight how current policies directly affect the well-being and growth of our children. I do not intend to demonize the right and canonize the left. Regardless of political ideology, we can all agree that we do not want our children to suffer health problems and impaired development due to poor nutrition. Improving school meals is something that democrats, republicans, and independents need to pursue in a bipartisan manner. We cannot allow politicians  to exploit the health of our children.

How will the changes implemented by the USDA under the Trump administration contribute to our child obesity epidemic in the 2017-2018 school year?

    • Schools are no longer required to comply with regulations that set standards for the types of grains served in school lunches (7). The original regulation set the goal of only serving 100% whole grains in school lunches. Serving 100% whole grains is crucial for improving the health of our children. These 100% whole grains provide more fiber and vitamins and less sugar and empty calories (calories with no nutritional benefits) than processed grains.

What our children’s school lunches should be: 

Delicious and Nutritious

This Bento Box created by Omiebox ( an insulated toxin-free Bento Box) provides the perfect example of a nutritions, delicious, fun, and kid-friendly lunch.

You can find Omieboxes at https://www.omielife.com

Versus

What we actually serve our children in school: Salty, Greasy, Sugary, and Highly Processed

Photo:Huffington Post

School Lunch Tray: frozen pizza, flavored milk, cookie, canned green beans and sweetened fruit cocktail                                                  

  • Schools will no longer be required to meet the sodium Target Goal 2, which required reduction of sodium to less than 935 mg (in grades K-5), 1053 mg (in grades 6 to 8), and 1080 mg (grades 9-12) (7). It is recommended that children do not consume more than 2,000 to 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Most of the sodium we consumes comes from prepared foods that have an excessive amount of salt added during commercial processing, and not from salt added during home cooking or at the table. Without keeping our target to reduce sodium in our school lunches, we can only assume that 1 school lunch may provide about half of the daily-recommended sodium intake for a child. That is too much sodium for one school lunch! Much of the problem with regards to sodium comes from serving frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, sloppy joes, and popcorn shrimp to our children. Providing processed, frozen meals to our kids is unacceptable. We must facilitate the funds, training, and support needed for kitchen and cafeteria staff to cook most of the food served to our children from whole foods, instead of relying on frozen convenience foods.                                                                                                                                                                       
  • Schools are now allowed to serve 1% flavored milk with added sugar (7). Why is this concerning? Typically, the chocolate milk found in schools contains many additives that do not contribute to the healthy growth of our children. 1% chocolate milk contains sugar as its second ingredient (before cocoa powder). In fact, 1 cup of chocolate milk (8 oz), contains 3-4 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar. A child who drinks 5 cups of chocolate milk at school every week during lunch is consuming 15 teaspoons of added sugar per week and 240 empty calories (calories that contribute no vitamins/minerals). Over time, eating empty calories from sugary milk drinks can cause obesity and increased blood sugar levels in our children. Children should be able to enjoy chocolate milk made with high quality ingredients, instead of drinking “milk” filled with processed sugar and additives that are harmful to a child’s well-being.

                                                                                                         

Versus

                                                                                           

What can we do to protect the nutritional quality of the food our children eat?

We are in a challenging position politically, but we must continue to persevere as responsible citizens and caring parents. In our next post, we will explore steps you can actively take to advocate for improved nutrition for our children in school.

Happy Little Eaters at a School Meal Program at Etafenie in Nyanga, South Africa

 Food for Thought

  • What is your opinion on this issue?
  • What are your thoughts on how we can make improvements to school lunch programs and bring fresh, delicious, and nourishing foods to our children every day?
  • Are you a parent? Have you taken the time to investigate what your child is eating at school?
  • Did you find this article to be helpful in understanding the importance of the School Lunch Program in promoting our children’s development and well-being?

Alice in Foodieland is a safe, kind, and nurturing community where all opinions are respected and welcomed. I love connecting with you and hearing your thoughts on the public health challenges we face. Feel free to add your questions, opinions, and feedback on the comments section.

Cheers to our Children’s Health<3 and Happy Eating + Mindful Living!

 

References 

  1. Overweight in Children. (2016, July 5). Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyKids/ChildhoodObesity/Overweight-in-Children_UCM_304054_Article.jsp#.WbHnm9OGNE4
  2. Childhood Obesity Facts. 10 Apr. 2017, www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html.
  3. Healthy Schools. 25 Jan. 2017, www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/obesity/facts.htm.
  4. Child Obesity. (2016, April 08). Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-trends/global-obesity-trends-in-children/
  1. MRP, Cynthia L. Ogden PhD. Prevalence of Obesity and Trends in Body Mass Index Among US Children and Adolescents, 1999-2010. 1 Feb. 2012, jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/1104932.
  2. Ogden, Cynthia, et al. “Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth:  United States, 2011–2014.” NCHS Data Brief , vol. 219, 2015, pp. 2–8., www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db219.pdf.
  3. Ag Secretary Perdue Moves to Make School Meals Great Again. (2017, May 1). Retrieved from https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2017/05/01/ag-secretary-perdue-moves-make-school-meals-great-again
  4. Flegal, PhD Katherine M. Prevalence of Obesity and Trends in the Distribution of Body Mass Index Among US Adults, 1999-2010. 1 Feb. 2012, jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/1104933.