School lunches are gross. Yeah, I said it. They were gross when we were kids and they've only gotten worse. The unfortunate thing is, however, that for a lot of kids, a school lunch is the most nourishing meal that they'll eat all day. And while I think it's great that schools offer free or reduced lunch plans for some kids, I still feel like they could do better to provide more nutrient-dense and balanced meals.
If you're a parent of a school-aged child, you've most likely seen a school lunch menu. Pizza counts as a vegetable and is a healthy source of whole grains *insert eye roll here*. I kid you not. Is it any wonder why more and more kids are developing type 2 diabetes (which used to be called adult-onset diabetes because kids didn't get it), and obesity rates are increasing among youth?
A recent Rutgers study found that one out of five school age children in the United States is considered obese. Kids who ate two meals (both breakfast and lunch) at school were the most likely to be obese.
It's crucial that schools offer healthy options. Kudos to the National School Lunch Program for trying. They think they're doing kids some good by offering low-fat options. I personally think kids are better off with whole milk than with skim milk. And don't even get me started on the strawberry low-fat milk that contains nearly as much sugar as soda and is dyed pink. Whole milk is ounce for ounce so much more nutritious. Low-fat milk tends to be ultra-processed and has a higher glycemic load than whole milk. And yet whole milk is not an option in nearly every public school cafeteria in the country because it's "unhealthy". But cheese pizza can be considered a source of whole grains and vegetables.
The main problem with school lunches (aside from how carb-heavy they tend to be) is that schools are following outdated nutritional guidelines that need a lot of revamping. I love the work that Nina Teicholz is doing with the Nutrition Coalition. She's a huge advocate for healthier school lunches based on corrected nutritional guidelines. School nutrition officials need better education about what constitutes a balanced meal for a healthier school lunch (*hint* it's not cheesy breadsticks with a cup of marinara dipping sauce as a main entree). The focus should be on healthier protein options with a bit of fat for satiety. Instead, schools are demonizing fat by not even allowing kids to choose whole milk as an option. Yet, the obesity rates among kids (especially those who receive two school cafeteria meals per day) is increasing.
I've worked in several schools in three different states in the US. I've had the "honor" of being put-on lunch duty a few times. I saw children's eating habits. They generally go for the sweet stuff first. Then they'll opt for the carbs (such as tater tots dipped in ketchup that's full of high fructose corn syrup). If they're still hungry, they'll nibble on their low-fat protein option. However, some schools don't even serve a solid source of protein each day of the week. Like I stated above, one of the lunch menu main courses was cheesy breadsticks with marinara dipping sauce. No protein in sight. I rarely saw kids touch their vegetables. I don't blame them. The "green" beans were not really green at all. Sometimes tater tots, because they come from potatoes, or pizza, because it contains tomato sauce, counted as the vegetable. A lackluster salad bar is sometimes rolled out in case kids want to grab some iceburg lettuce, tomato or cucumber slices, or shredded carrots. ButI often saw the vegetables on the salad bar go to waste. The only time kids went near it was when they had french fries on their tray and wanted some ranch dressing for dipping.
I understand that some parents can't afford to feed their kids, so they rely on the school system to do it for them. But the school system needs to rethink their meals and serve better options if they want these kids to avoid obesity, whether now or in the future.
As a teacher, I've witnessed first-hand how what kids consume affects them in the classroom. Kids who didn't eat a lot of fat or protein tended to do worse in school, could not sit still for as long, and exhibited more negative behaviors, including a lot of the symptoms of ADHD. The carbs they get from the cafeteria spike their blood sugar and then cause them to crash. This isn't conducive to good learning outcomes. I'm not sure this is considered by the people who design school lunch menus, but it should be.
What are your thoughts on this?