Saturday, September 01, 2012

It's Bigger Than Just School Lunch

As many blog posts as I have written bemoaning school lunches and nutrition for kids, it's refreshing to share good news. Here's an updated menu with the proposed USDA changes for better nutrition for school meals. It's much improved and I was even surprised to see jicama on the ingredients list.

What I like most about it is that it is a bit realistic. It's healthier swaps for things kids have been eating. What I would call "transitional foods." There's a chance kids will actually eat part of these lunches. Much of the rationale used to block school food changes hinged on precisely that: kids won't eat healthy foods. There is more waste. It won't work. And, frankly, they are right. If kids won't eat these items at home, how can we expect them to at school?

It's like a chicken and egg thing. Or a chicken nugget and egg mcmuffin thing. Do kids eat poorly because they get junk food in schools every day, or do kids eat junk food every day so they will only eat junk food in schools?

I've read with envy all the amenities and fresh food that Alice Water's and Co. have implemented in Berkeley schools along with their Edible Schoolyard program. I think about that program, even as I am applauding these hard-won changes. But,read
 this article in Grist about just how well the kids in Berkeley are eating and what they are not eating. Do they eat a better diet and non-processed foods than other kids? Yes. But, even with all the advantages, frankly the kids still aren't eating as well as they could.

We're winning in our schools. Which is incredibly important for kids whose best meals and main nutrition for the week come from our school lunch program. Let's not stop here. 

Let's keep fixing school lunches.

A bit of history for perspective:

The first school lunch programs were created by teachers and moms. They often included things like a garden on site and even a cow for fresh milk.

The first school lunch legislation was passed in 1946. The program was not designed as a way to help feed hungry kids alone. It was also established to use surplus agricultural commodities which in turn kept food prices from crashing. The program was funded with $10 million per year in 1946 dollars (114.6 million today) to feed 6.7 million children. Today's budget is $11 billion annually to feed 31 million kids daily.

What are "surplus agricultural commodities?" Commodities may not sound much like food, but historically this meant the basic items produced from a farm; corn, wheat, soy, rice, meat, milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables. Not so much now, but we'll get to that in a later lesson.

In many ways, the 1946 legislation was well-intentioned if not fairly administrated. Okay, it sounded good at least.

Here's a few other quotes from the 1946 legislation that might make us all yearn for the good old days, or at least the old days of good lunch as it was promised:
  • "The need for a permanent legislative basis for a school lunch program, rather than operating it on a year-to-year basis, or one dependent solely on agricultural surpluses that for a child may be nutritionally unbalanced or nutritionally unattractive, has now become apparent."
  • "It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food ..."
  • "The educational features of a properly chosen diet served at school should not be under-emphasized. Not only is the child taught what a good diet consists of, but his parents and family likewise are indirectly instructed."
While it may seem like some of our lunch items around today have enough preservatives to have endured since 1946, the lunch program then contained a lot fewer processed foods. It was 1946 after all. Here are the 1946 recommendations for a typical meal per child:

Milk, whole, 1/2 pint
Protein-rich food consisting of any of the following or a combination thereof:
  • 2 oz. Fresh or processed meat, poultry meat, cheese, cooked or canned fish
  • Dry peas or beans or soy beans, cooked, ½ cup
  • Peanut Butter, 4 tbsp.
  • Eggs, 1
Raw, cooked, or canned vegetables or fruits, or both, ¾ cup
Bread, muffins or hot bread made of whole grain cereal or enriched flour, 1 portion

So, at least 66 years ago, folks knew that our country's future was linked to healthy children. That not all agricultural commodities are healthy foods. And that the meal provided should be exemplary of what families should eat at home. The meal was also based on whole foods; milk, protein, vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great post about school lunch! Parents can do a lot in their school districts to help improve what kids are eating in school. At the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, we created Rudd'Roots Parents (, a website for parent advocates that provides information, toolkits, and research to assist parents in making changes to school food! I hope you'll check it out!