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HomeHealth & BehaviorHealth & Nutrition

The new food fighters

Will Arne Duncan and Michelle Obama serve your child a better school lunch?

By Carol Lloyd

Since scientists began linking the rise in childhood obesity to high-fat, high-sugar diets, alarm bells have been ringing about the sorry state of school lunches in the United States. In 2005 predictions that, for the first time in the nation's history, children were not expected to live longer than their parents galvanized a movement of activists, parents, and health professionals who lobbied for change.
Since then new guidelines attempt to bar those "ketchup is a vegetable" loopholes. In 2006 legislation began requiring that every school district develop its own "wellness plan."

The results have been mixed. Some schools and school districts have pioneered the idea of healthier lunches — cooking up a host of new partnerships and programs. In 1994 slow-food guru Alice Waters broke ground on her Edible Schoolyard, a program at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., that teaches students to cultivate their own organic garden and cook their own meals. Several large school districts — including Chicago’s and Los Angeles’ — have broken ties with their corporate sugar daddies and banished Coke and other sodas from their vending machines. Pioneering schools — from Compton, Calif., to Kohler, Wis. — now include salad bar alternatives to the usual, greasy suspects like sloppy joes and pizza.

But there's still a long way to go. Recent studies show that 32% of U.S. children are obese or overweight, though evidence suggests that obesity rates are leveling off. And when the slop hits the tray, many school lunches are only marginally better than prison grub. Actually I take that back. Prison food may be better for you (see “Do Inmates Eat Better Than Students?”).

Yet with health foodies storming the White House, the school lunch revolution may have reached its tipping point. Even amid the federal budget crisis, President Barack Obama allocated an extra $1 billion for child nutrition programs including school food in 2010. Last March, First Lady Michelle Obama started the first "organic"garden on the White House grounds (which, as it turns out, can't actually be certified as organic because a sludge-based fertilizer was used during a previous administration) — a symbolic move Waters had been championing for years. At a harvest celebration in June, the first lady delivered a food policy speech that addressed the need to improve school lunches. Before becoming the White House chef, Sam Kass denounced the artificially flavored and colored, high-meat, and low-vegetable meals the National School Lunch Program produces. Finally, the new secretary of education, Arne Duncan, may also lend a sympathetic ear to the food warriors. Recently during his "listening tour" on education reform, he chose to take his lunch break at Barnes Elementary School in Burlington, Vt., where a successful Farm to School program delivers fresh produce directly from small, local farmers.

This Labor Day, lunchroom revolutionaries joined forces to host hundreds of fundraisers called “eat-ins” and raise the issue of school lunch reform.

According to a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Education, Duncan sees a link between better lunches and better learning. “Feeding students nutritious, quality meals at school, and encouraging families to continue good eating habits at home, will be one of the strategies the Obama administration employs to promote learning and healthy living." In any case, this September, when Congress revises national standards for school lunches, there may finally be the political will to degrease the diets of our students. New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand is introducing legislation that would ban trans fat in school lunches.

What do you think? Should the Department of Education be as focused on salad bars as teacher salaries? Are legumes as essential as literacy? Or do you think the school lunch program should be administrated by the Department of Health and Human Services?

July 2009

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/2/2012:
"Why are the school serving food to children that they are saying is to nasty for them to eat !! Why are we purchasing food just to be thrown away ? The children don't want that junk !! "
05/4/2010:
"Perry High School lunch is one of thee poorest quality of nutritional value for my son. I cannot believe how the schools reduce to serving faux food that I wouldn't even consider feeding my dogs...ever! Shame on the schools and especially the government (who is to be in charge of it)!"
04/2/2010:
"Where to begin??!! It's a disaster. The kids need more time for lunch, the kids need some coaching from teachers during lunch just like parents do at home - encourage them to eat their veggies, and the food needs to be upgraded from processed, high in sugar, fat, and additives; artificially flavored and colored. Hundreds of parents in my town do not let their kids buy school lunch because of the quality and yet my town is now at a crossroads because the lunch program is not making enough money to break even. We are trying to work with the town and improve what is offered and we believe that more kids would buy lunch if it were in fact, decent. 5 days a week for 12 years is a heck of a lot of chicken nuggets, french toast sticks, mozzerella sticks, etc...that is not lunch. The schools are confusing our children. If they see that junk food served at school, they assume it must be ok. It's school after all! Regardless of what we teach them at home. We have a long way ! to go, thank God for Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution! And Michelle Obama!!"
04/2/2010:
"Where to begin??!! It's a disaster. The kids need more time for lunch, the kids need some coaching from teachers during lunch just like parents do at home - encourage them to eat their veggies, and the food needs to be upgraded from processed, high in sugar, fat, and additives; artificially flavored and colored. Hundreds of parents in my town do not let their kids buy school lunch because of the quality and yet my town is now at a crossroads because the lunch program is not making enough money to break even. We are trying to work with the town and improve what is offered and we believe that more kids would buy lunch if it were in fact, decent. 5 days a week for 12 years is a heck of a lot of chicken nuggets, french toast sticks, mozzerella sticks, etc...that is not lunch. The schools are confusing our children. If they see that junk food served at school, they assume it must be ok. It's school after all! Regardless of what we teach them at home. We have a long way ! to go, thank God for Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution! And Michelle Obama!!"
03/25/2010:
"As a school nutrition professional, I've seen countless bashing of school lunch throughout the years. It's an easy target for politicians and the media. The program is required to offer fruits and vegetables for each meal so to write there is no fruits or vegetables at lunch is a fallacy (unless the school is not following regulations). School lunches average 600-800 calories for the entire meal including milk. Less calories than ONE entree salad at a known chain restaurant. Many states have stricter nutrition standards than the federal standards and have been very proactive improving the meals served to students. Many schools are making healthier pastries and kids may not know that the cookies served may be made with raisin puree or applesauce. Donuts are baked and made with whole grains and added vitamins and protein. Pizza made with lowfat cheese and whole grain crusts. The lunch program is much more complex than people realize. Funding is minimal and new laws come! without money to implement the new laws and still be able to cover operating costs. Money is eaten up generating required paperwork. Congress passed the Paperwork Reduction Act and school lunch paperwork was just behind the Department of Defense and the IRS, yet only 1/2 of 1% of the federal budget! Although many reports are computerized (generating less paper), many hours are still spent generating and submitting required reports and documentation. The problem with obesity and diabetes rose not because of school lunch, students eat the majority of their meals outside of school lunch. Kids today are more sedentary than earlier generations. More focus needs to be on the amount of television time (cable with more than 500 channels), computer time (email, Facebook, MySpace, on-line shopping, electronic games (X-box, etc.), texting, etc. that kids are doing today rather than spending time outside in the fresh air doing physical activities. Put some real money into nutrition education. Don't just pass a law for N.E. and not appropriate monies to implement N.E. at all schools and with the parents. Nutrition standards must be reasonable and not just based on a very small survey sample size. If your school is having issues with the quality and appearance of the food, its operator error. The nutrition standards need to be followed and the operator may need retraining. Obamas - put the money where it really needs to go. To the local school districts. Allow just 25% or less of the money for federal and state administrative efforts rather than 50% or more. 75% or more of the monies must go directly to the local school districts in order to hire adequate staff, upgrade equipment, purchase newer safety supplies and monitoring equipment, buy the higher priced 'organic foods', prepare more foods on-site, etc. "
03/16/2010:
"Unfortunately, this is my daughters first year at a public school and her last. We have always packed lunches and will go back to it. I grew up in the 70's and 80's and we had great school lunches, what happened? Maybe with a little more research, you'll find that many, if not most, of the school lunch programs are run by the unions. Anybody, hear of SEIU, Andy Stern is the President of SEIU and visits the Whitehouse on a regular basis, he's buds with President Obama and his Michelle. The school lunch program is government incompetance and corruption at it finest, all the unions care about is big profitable contracts and not the 'Nutrition' of children. Stop the foolishness about how many more kids can we enroll in the free lunch program. There is no 'free lunch' just redistrubuting other peoples money through the government to those they deem underpriveledged."
03/4/2010:
"One day I allowed my 7 year old to eat in the cafeteria ( breakfast for lunch day ) When she came home I asked her about her lunch experience. She said they ended up not serving the pancakes or whatever and she was unable to tell me what it was they served!! I kept asking, hamburger? Chicken? What was it? She said she had never seen anything like it. It is not too expensive to pack a lunch, believe me, we are strapped and she has a healthy lunch each day, with no juice, no chip, no cookies and never complains, either. She is a very, very picky eater."
03/1/2010:
"I am shocked, as a parent, upon seeing what is served in schools. Fried, greasy fast food consisting of pizza, hamburgers, and french fries. My daughter is allergic to milk, cheese, nuts, and seeds and is unable to consume anything that is served. The sandwiches have peanut butter and everything else is covered with processed cheese and is extremely unhealthy. There aren't any fresh fruits, vegetables or salads. "
03/1/2010:
"It isn't that school lunches are not nutritous as it is that they are too large and contain excessive calories. Since the implementation of free breakfast and free lunches at school, childhood obesity has been rising in the US. Those children eat brunch for breakfast and dinner for lunch and a snack five days per week. All of this while they take a bus to school and sit there for six hours. No wonder they are obese. "
02/25/2010:
"I am an instructor's aide here at a local southern California elementary school. I have seen firsthand what we are feeding our children and I honestly think everyone would be better off if parents took responsibility for packing healthy lunches. I remember when I was in elentary school, back in the '80's, and we had wonderful food options. Nothing ever prepackaged like it all is now. Yes, we had choices of pizza (which actually looked like pizza, not this burnt stuff they offer now, burgers, hot dogs, etc. But we also had Salisbury steak, grilled fish filets, tacos, enchiladas, and burritos, among others. And those were just the main dishes. We had 2 veggies a day, usually a salad and either mixed veggies, carrots, green beans, or steamed broccoli and cauliflower... Then there was a dessert, 9 times out of 10 it was fresh fruit, yogurt, jello, of a fruit coctail. We were offered a slice of apple or cherry pie once a month as a celebration of birthdays for that month. Sounds ! pretty special huh? I went to a regular school like everyone else. Nothing special about it. So far in this school year, I have seen the same 8 things being offered. No choices other than you take it or you don't. One veggie, including rice (didn't know it counted) and one fruit (also counted in the form of nondairy ice cream). And you would be amazed at exactly how much of this 'free/reduced lunch' gets wasted by the kids. There is a huge lacking in the taste factor. I think we're trying so hard to be more healthy with our children that we've gone the wrong way. We need to take a step back and reexamine what we're serving. "
02/25/2010:
"I am happy to hear that we are making progress toward healthier human beings. Proper nutrition plays a key role in physical development as well as mental development, the old saying, 'we are what we eat' is a TRUE statement. If we feed our children empty calories it only brings empty results. I think the importance of this should come any way possible. The food and drug administration have been involved all along and they have done nothing to help our society, I would not be suprised if they are linked to the health care industry which is booming due to all our unhealthy americans. It is good to have a fresh ally in the war against our negative nutritional behaviors. Thanks Mrs Obama-lu"
02/25/2010:
"The National School Lunch Program was created to make sure every child is offered at least one healthy meal a day. Serving prepared foods is easier and less expensive than serving meals prepared from fresh foods. The state of New Jersey requires all school lunch programs to be self sustaining; it is actually illegal for a school to allocate money in their budget to be spent on a school lunch program. The ONLY way schools in NJ can improve their lunch offerings is with direct, outside monetary assistance. Additional PE and recess time is also needed, but with mandated minutes for academic subjects (a good thing) more time can only be found by lengthening the school day. Longer days mean larger teacher salaries (justafiably). New Jersey also limits how much a school budget can increase from one year to the next. With more federal mandates, annual increases in teachers' salaries, increasing fuel costs for heating and transportation, increasing tuition costs for out of district ! placements, and shrinking state aid there is no way any district can even consider lengthening a school day. We can't control children's lives at home. We can only set a good example while they are in our care. But without the involvement of the federal government, public schools in New Jersey just don't have the money to make changes and aren't allowed to raise the needed money even if the communities are willing to pay to make changes."
02/25/2010:
"My 5 year old son and I have recently been discussing packing his lunch. He constantly comes home with stomach aches after eating school lunches. We eat a lot of healthy foods at home. We always have fresh fruits and vegetables in the house. We have also started to buy healthy meat substitutes (which are delicious by the way, bought at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's stores). Since we started this new food routine at home, my son has lost 5 pounds of fat. He has a lot more energy than he used to. AND his grades have improved! My son refuses to eat school lunches now. How horrible is that? How can they serve such disgusting food at school? I know that many schools have worked hard to make healthier lunches for our children at school. But more is needed. Lunches at school should not be so horrible that you get belly aches because of the grease and fat (we are pretty sure that's what causes my son's belly aches, because he does not eat greasy or overly fatty foods at home). I have decided to get together with some other moms in my son's class and bring this us at the next PTA meetings. It may be a small step, but we have to start somewhere, right?!"
02/25/2010:
"The School Lunch Program is totally unnecessary. Let the kids bring a good snack, let them go home early and eat a full lunch at home. Most other industrialized countries (e.g. in Europe) accomplish a better education in less hours education per day than we do. We are unwilling to look at best practices and learn from other countries. No, not everything is the best and greatest here. Some is, and some is not. Whatever is not the best and greatest, we could make it the best and greatest, if we were willing to learn. - And for those who worry about free and subsidized lunches, don't worry assistance can be provided differently to feed the children. On a last note, if you want better education, get education centralized, and get rid of the local independent school districts and the property taxes associated with them. And if you want healthier children, start cooking. Sorry Moms, I know that's so very hard!"
02/25/2010:
"At our school even the cooks will refuse to eat several meals they will serve to the kids. They will make something different for themselves to eat saying the meal they are serving is nasty. "
02/25/2010:
"Ok, I am a School Food Service Employee, and while yes, the school lunch program could use a drastic makeover, it is still 10 times better then what some children get while at home, if they get anything at home at all. Well over 5o% of the kids at my school are on the free and reduced lunch program, and many of those who are on full pay dont even send in money for their kids to eat with,or pack them a lunch, however they are never turned away from our kitchen. We do not add any extra salt or oils, none of our meats come in raw, it is all pre-cooked, therefore cutting down on grease and allowing for better sanitation. School budgets have been cut back so much we have no choice but to order some products that are not as prossesed, man power and work hours are cut down so we have to fix prossesed, pre-cooked, and pre-packaged food so it can be prepeared as fast as posible.While teachers and other administrative personal get raises, the scool food service gets budget cuts. Whats! wrong with this picture? "
02/24/2010:
"Just thought I would throw this fact in there. I personally pack my son's lunch since he won't eat cheese steaks, pizza, or hot dogs, so it works well for us. But I can afford to, many parents can't. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) makes it possible for all school children in the United States to receive a nutritious lunch each and every school day. History Congress created the NSLP after an investigation into the health of young men rejected in the World War II draft showed a connection between physical deficiencies and childhood malnutrition. In response, Congress enacted the 1946 National School Lunch Act as a 'measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children.' "
02/24/2010:
"Yes, the school lunches are bad! The 'meat' that they use really appears to be unfit for human consumption. It would make sense to make all school lunches vegetarian. People do not need meat at every meal (or any) meal. I volunteer at my kids cafeteria, and unfortunately, I am not sure that if the kids were served better food, most of them would eat it. Many of the lunches that I see kids bringing from home are almost as bad, and unhealthy as the slop they are selling in the cafeteria! It is sad, we definitely need some education for some of the moms out there, who think that processed meats, and sugary snacks make a good lunch. I would love to see all kids having a healthy lunch every day with lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains."
02/24/2010:
"I think it is extremely important something be done about the lunches at our schools. I recently had lunch at my son's school and was disgusted. I know for a fact most kids are just throwing away most of what they are being served because it is just plain disgusting and eating the prepackaged high fat low nutritional value things on their trays. Milk and high sugar juice should not be the only choices for the kids if at all. Why have your child buy a hot lunch if they are not going to eat it? They are not going to to do well in school because they are hungry and their blood sugar is low. It is imparative something be done immediately about the lunched being served to our kids. Go have lunch at your child's school one day and you will see for yourself what I say to be the truth."
02/24/2010:
"at lunch talking to the class friday they wouldnt eat the fish steaks and informed me they liked fish sticks this could help with their intake of protein, they ate only the tater tots the rest was a waste.. hope this helps "
02/24/2010:
"I just found out that my daughter's school serves doughnuts and pastries at breakfast. I cannot believe it! No wonder my daughter wants to eat breakfast at school. I don't think so!"
02/24/2010:
"I am not a nutitionist or a physician so I am not an authority on whether legumes or other food types and compositions are essential or best however I am a parent who in absolutely intested in my children's well being and development. I am a beneficiary of what I consider a very good education and long term healthy eating practices and programs. I am a concerned member of the local and global community. Teachers and curriculum are the reason the place we send our children is called 'school' rather than 'daycare' or something else. To me it is important that our teachers receive sufficient income to comfortably sustain themselves and their own family in return for instructing and guiding our children's and our next generation's development and understanding of their world. However, the individual child is the reason schools are even contrived. It is in everyone's interest for our children to be safe and healthy. This must be an unconditional certainty for wherever our children are. For this reason I feel if it is determined that the current school food program is unhealthy or unsafe, instantly the priority must be to correct this ASAP. We want our children to learn to take care of their selves then contribute to the progress and development of society as a whole. The school system and environment has the time, influence and structure to promote, develop and maintain healthy and productive habits. In short - whatever is necessary to ensure health and safety for each individual in our schools takes priority over anything else in school. Healthy diet intake is immediatly and personally impactual, tangible, observable and managable. This is something that can and must be ensured to be 'safe' and 'healthy' (promoting good physical and mental functionality). Of course there are other benefits as well to healthy eating practices. I feel it is critical that healthy self sustainment must be the first lesson of education. "
02/24/2010:
"I am a School Food Service professional and take great offense from this article! We serve many fruits and vegetables and are held accountable to stringent regulations by the USDA. To call the school lunch slop is a severe misjudgement! WE use the healthiest means in preparing foods. We serve lowfat alternatives to kids favorites. Quit blaming the schools for the students' obesity problems. Tell their parents to cook for a change and quit picking up McDonald's for dinner!! "
02/24/2010:
"I think the govt should stay the hell out of it! If the local schools want to strive harder for a healthier menu - that is great! Kudos to them but please let's not swing this topic under the control of the govt. Pretty soon we will all be driving little robo-cars, living in condos with the govt telling us what docs to see and not only running our schools but also telling us what to eat. There are just some things that aren't the job of the government and this is one of them. Parents should parent their kids.............."
02/24/2010:
"As the father of an 11-year old immigrant from Russia, and as one who spent five years studying in Russia myself, I am convinced that the American diet needs fixing. My wife, who is also Russian, is appalled at what our schools feed the children. We have banned serving Coke or Pepsi in our home, and serve up a minimum of packaged (processed) foods. Even our daughter turns up her nose at much of the food that is served in her school. She is used to being served a small bowl of rice or buckwheat 'kasha,' along with a stick of cheese or sausage. Juice is the only drink served in their schools; a small slice of fruit and/or vegetable rounds out the meal. There is little emphasis on desserts and snacks, as this only reinforces the bad diet that most schoolchildren then proceed to eat at home away from school. I've tried to calculate how much it might cost to serve up rice or buckwheat, and whether this might be cheaper than the processed foods (pizza, hamburgers, etc.) most schools serve. Of course, there's probably a special interest group somewhere that is lobbying for the right to keep serving up processed foods instead of whole grains and fruits and vegetables, and tragically most school administrations are not courageous enough to stand up to these special interest groups. Russians are physically a very beautiful people and don't have the obesity problem that America has. Surely, we can do better."
02/24/2010:
"The school lunches that our school provide are sub-par. I went to have breakfast with my kids one morning and they served sugared cereal, chocolate milk, canned fruit in syrup and cinnamon sugar toast! No wonder the kids crash during class. When I complained, I was told that if they serve anything differently, the kids throw it away and then they get complaints from the parents that the kids are eating. THEN the school sends home notes telling us not to pack sugary snacks for the kids?? Another problem is that the later the day goes the less food is available. By the time my 6th grader get lunch, a lot of time much of the food is already gone so they usually miss the salad and fruit. "
02/24/2010:
"I think they should go back to making the lunches at school, not giving the kids frozen entrys trays that are heated up. I pack my grandkids lunches so there not eating frozen lunches that are heated up. "
02/23/2010:
"While I think that my daughter's school is wonderful, I have been disappointed by their breakfast and lunch selection more times than I care to count. ... I am surprised to learn that school lunches aren't already being more closely regulated. "
02/23/2010:
"Lots of folks talk the talk. Maschio's Food Services in New Jersey sponsors 'localvore' foodie festivals but their lunches are the typical oversalted, oversweet mystery nuggets I keep my kids awaaaay from. They argue that they meet or exceed all government requirements. The only requirement? According to this food service, 'enough protein!' "
02/23/2010:
"People are fat, sucks for them. They need to exercise and take care of themselves. But what about us? The skinny/healthy people with a high metabolism which people always complain to us saying 'omg you're so skinny' or 'I want your body'. They shouldn't be punished too. And as if our eating habits at home are any better. The whole organic at school thing is just as stupid as wearing uniforms. Some fat people with bad eating habits refuse to open thier eyes as tey munch on a bag of chips, too bad for them. I don't care. But for thourselves, why is all the sugary stuff stolen from us? What have we done wrong? Our bodies are fine..for now.ose of us who are aware and take care of "
02/23/2010:
"I applaud those mothers that take the time to make sure their children are eating well balanced meals everyday. To those that have comments regarding the meals you have seen in the schools...have you once approached the right person regarding what you have seen. In our school we have well balanced meals that have to stay at a certain temp in order to serve we have never put everything into our soup to make it our veggi left over. In this day and age we are looking to do more in less time so we are asked to open cans and heat the food. BUT every day we have a verity of many options for our little children to choose from. Our teachers, staff and children choose from three main dish, two to three veggies, two to three fruit (fresh, canned and or specialty fruits.) A fresh bar of the day is put out each day. We also offer many cakes, cookies, water, and sparkling drink for the kids to purchase. We do what we can to insure that our children eat healthy. Now it is only up to them ! to eat what they pick. We can only prepare and serve the foods we are asked to fix. Our county nutritionist comes up with our menu every month. Our child nutrition is a big part of our schools and we never push anything on any one person. Each child is given forms at the beginning of each year to fill out if they so choose. Free or reduced is it applies to you, you will receive the help. If you feel you do not qualify you are not asked to fill it out. As an employee of CCCNP I am here to say we work hard to insure our children eat healthy well balanced meals every day."
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