Processed foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt have become a mainstay of lunches in schools across America and the results are in — experts say these unhealthy school lunches are a contributing factor to the childhood obesity epidemic. A movement is afoot to bring change to school lunch programs across the country.
“We can do a tremendous amount of good for kids across the country if we change school lunches,” says Chef Ann Cooper, the self proclaimed “renegade lunch lady.” Cooper is an author, educator, and chef.
Cooper and others are tackling the problem head on, bringing awareness to the issue of unhealthy school lunches. Change isn’t happening easily or quickly, but advocates remain hopeful they can impact the childhood obesity problem in America.
An estimated 17% of children and adolescents ages 2-19 years are obese according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The possible consequences of childhood obesity can range from physical complications such as diabetes and high blood pressure, to social problems like low self-esteem and depression. And those problems can lead to children who don’t perform as well in school.
Simply put: “healthy students are better learners,” according to Rochelle Davis, the founding Executive Director for the Healthy Schools Campaign.
“What’s wrong with school lunches is what is wrong with all the food we’re eating — it’s not just in the schools,” Davis says. “One of the biggest deficits is the lack of fruits and vegetables and whole grains.”
But there are many obstacles to improving unhealthy school lunches, not the least of which is money. Schools receive $2.68 for each free meal served through the National School Lunch Program, a federal meal program.
That $2.68 must cover payment not just for the food, but also any labor, facility, and structural costs a school incurs. Additionally, schools are mandated to use part of that money for milk purchases.
“It’s hard to have a meal that is less processed on less than a dollar even when you’re working with a big school system,” Davis says.
Another obstacle to addressing the problem is that some schools have given contracts to food management companies. Cory Schreiber, Culinary Instructor at The Art Institute of Portland, says the contracts amount to one of the biggest changes to school lunches. It’s also one that can cause more problems.
“The quality goes down; they have purchasing powers,” he says. “There’s no reason in the world that money [$2.68] should offer a profit. But they know how to manage the subsidies.”
Schreiber adds that the blame doesn’t lie with those companies since they lack incentives to make any changes to unhealthy school lunches. Change should come from the government with a federal nutrition program, he says.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, 31.2 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program through more than 101,000 schools and residential child care institutions during the 2008-09 school year. “On a typical school day,” the center notes, “19.4 million of these 31.2 million total participants were receiving free or reduced price lunches.”
The government isn’t entirely ignoring the issue of unhealthy school lunches. The Healthy School Meals Act of 2010 (H.R. 4870) was introduced in Congress in March and referred to committee. A key provision is a pilot program for selected schools to offer plant-based protein products and nondairy milk substitutes.
Meanwhile, some changes are slowly happening to unhealthy school lunches thanks to the non-profit world and the schools themselves. One example is that of chef and author Alice Waters and her edible schoolyard project, a one-acre garden and kitchen classroom at a middle school in California. Another way to find money for changes, Schreiber suggests, is getting volunteers into the school kitchens to eliminate labor costs.
“When changes come they’re not made within the current infrastructure,” he adds. “They come through grants, volunteers, and the edible school yard example.”
Schreiber says the garden model is a good one because it gets kids involved in learning more about agriculture.
Sometimes very simple changes, such as placing bowls of fruits and vegetables on the lunchroom tables while children are waiting for their meas, can have positive effects when it comes to combating unhealthy school lunches, says Lisa Bennett, Communications Director for the Center for Ecoliteracy.
“It’s always interesting and encouraging to check out the stories of schools that have done things differently,” she says. “Very simple changes can have a big effect.”
Bennett says reversing lunch and recess times helps kids settle down when it’s time for lunch.
While still problematic, unhealthy school lunches and childhood obesity situations are getting attention and Bennett says there is some positive change happening.
“The good news is that a lot of schools have found creative ways around it,” she says.
Written by freelance talent for Ai InSite
Contributing writer for EDMC.