The State of School Lunch…

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School lunch, I remember it well.  Some days were good, other days the menu held items referred to as “S**t on a Shingle  and “Barf on a Bun”.  The lunch ladies were always kind and knew our names (I grew up in a VERY small town) and I gotta give them gals some mad-props because they were downright crafty with food nomenclature.  Hot dog, frankfurter, wiener, pig in a blanket, footlong, Polish Sausage – seriously, who knew you could call a link of questionable animal/plant/chemical sources so many different things.  Is it any wonder that to this day I still remember the cardinal directions by this little saying: North, East, South, West – Never Eat School Wieners? And then there were the chicken patties, chicken nuggets, chicken strips, chicken fried chicken, breaded chicken and pork patties (I swear – these were just the chicken patties cleverly molded into pork chop looking shapes – they tasted EXACTLY the same as the aforementioned chicken).  Oh yeah, the memories…

Now back in the day when I was a school lunch consumer we didn’t have a daily salad bar or choice of entree.  Nope, not even one of those food carts where you could buy other foods or a vending machine. The choices were eat what the menu listed, bring your lunch, or go hungry.  So, times have definitely changed – some things for the good (salad bars, more fruits and veggies, entree choices) and some for the worse (competitive food sales, vending machines).  I’ve had the opportunity to work with the school lunch program both during my internship and in my career and let me tell you it’s tough.  The commodities that the government has available aren’t what most of us would refer to as ‘healthy’ (chicken patties, French fries, pizza, canned fruit in heavy syrup, etc.).  Now it’s not all doom and gloom – they also have fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables too, but much of what’s on the list is processed and packaged for convenience.

Having spent most of my ‘pre-paleo dietitian’ career in the food service management realm I will tell you right now that getting lunch made and ready to serve on time was a major feat  – if not a small miracle most days.  I had a staff of roughly 9-12 people (depending on who decided that work sounded like a good idea that day) and we turned out right around 800-900 lunches every day.  It all had to be ready to roll by 10:00 so that it could be delivered to our satellite locations too.  That gave us about four hours – not exactly time to prepare a feast…  But I digress (as usual).

Lately the National School Lunch Program (NSLP)has been getting a lot of attention and has recently undergone some changes.  While these changes are by no means earth shattering (no we will not see a paleo school lunch that is eligible for reimbursement anytime soon…) there are some improvements.  Larger portion requirements for and greater variety of fruits and vegetables are the biggest highlights (well, maybe the only highlights…) Yes, the selections now reach beyond the corn, peas, applesauce, canned peaches and green beans that we all remember so well.  But as is true with many changes it’s not all sunshine and roses.  With the good also comes the bad: more whole grains, incorporation of ‘alternative (READ: beans) proteins’ (I’m sure that makes for a lively music class later in the day…), smaller servings of protein and the ever present emphasis on low fat .  More fresh fruits and veggies = good.  More whole grains and less protein = not so good.  There are also new ‘calorie limits’ placed on the meals and while in theory this may seem like a good idea with the child obesity epidemic, it is leaving some active kids and teens with growling stomachs.

Also, it’s important to keep in mind that it doesn’t matter what we serve the kids if they don’t eat it – yeah, that’s the real catch.  We can make them put broccoli, spinach, and squash on their plates but we can’t make them put it in their mouths.  And unfortunately, many of them are not.  Society and parents are often quick to blame schools for serving less than optimal meals, but is it really the school’s fault?

Let me digress (again…).  Having worked in an organization with meals funded by the NSLP I can tell you that it is not a money making deal for the schools.  The amount that they are reimbursed for each meal, ranges from about $0.25 to $3.00 – these rates depend on family incomes and the amount of assistance given to them to pay for meals (full price, reduced, or free).  So, in order to stay out of the ‘red’ the lunch ladies have to be downright frugal with their serving choices.  As we are all painfully aware – food is NOT cheap.  And remember, that food isn’t the only expense – there’s labor, equipment, electricity, transportation (if offsite meal service is used), etc.  Let me be the first to tell you – IT IS HARD!!  I spent a LOT of time comparing products, prices, nutritionals, etc. it was a frustrating and thankless job to say the least.  Fielding complaints from parents regarding their children’s comments about the meals was just another job perk.  AND, get this – most of the parent/teacher complaints were not about lack of variety in fruits and vegetables.  Nope, health wasn’t the main concern.  The number one complaint – “the kids don’t like __________ (insert healthy food option here).  Sadly on the days we served chicken nuggets, pizza and French fries the complaints were much fewer than the days when we served roast turkey, pork loin, broccoli and/or sweet potatoes.  The kids didn’t ‘like’ those foods…

So let’s rethink this.  Sure the NSLP could be better but let’s just say that by some miracle, paleo meals were served, and unicorns and fairies existed.  Would it really make a difference?  My guess, not a noticeable one in most cases…  Now, don’t start calling me out telling me about how your kids LOVE liver and kale.  This may well be true – but keep in mind, your kids are NOT the norm.  Many of their classmates eat Pop-tarts and donuts for breakfast, McDonald’s for lunch and pizza for dinner.  This is further supplemented with soda, candy and chips for ‘snacks’ – yep, to lots of kids, school is the only place they actually come within shouting distance of a fruit or vegetable.  Unfortunately, proximity does not guarantee consumption.  Are the USDA, the schools and the lunch ladies really the ones to be blamed?

It’s going to take more than just making kids put an apple on their plate to get them to eat it.  It starts at home!  Parents and families need to take responsibility for their children’s health.  Setting good examples – like not saying ‘yuck’ when broccoli is listed on the school menu, or by actually exposing their children to foods that don’t involve a drive-thru, a cartoon character, or a box are all pretty darn important in this game.  Seeing foods like spinach, meat that hasn’t been ‘formed into a patty’, and fruit that’s not disguised as a ‘roll-up’, for the first time and only while at school is not going to suddenly make the kids ‘like it’ or even be open to trying it.  Education both at home and at school is needed.  Learning (and seeing – READ: mom and dad eat them too) that vegetables aren’t ‘gross’ and that ‘real food’ doesn’t come in a package or from the ‘Golden Arches’ is vital; and if we want to see real change this is where it needs to start.  School lunch is likely the healthiest meal most of the nation’s kids get all day – it’s sad, but true.  So, instead of blaming the lunch ladies – really think about the root of the problem and remember that the schools are likely doing the very best that they can using the resources and funds that they’re provided.

I’m not sure what the big picture answer is here – but I do know that if it doesn’t start and get reinforced at home it’s unlikely that one meal at school is going to turn the tide.  It’s a lot to think about.  There are no easy answers.  Do what you can at home and in your school system to help educate staff, children and parents.  Its small bands of loud voices that stimulate change and remember IT STARTS AT HOME.

What did your kids have for lunch today?

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  1. eema.gray
    October 4, 2012 at 5:49 am

    I listened to a facinating hour on PRI yesterday about school lunches. One member of the roundtable discussion pointed out that the school lunch program has to meet the general needs of a huge population. If your child is different (observes halel, kosher, food allergies, paleo, raw vegan, intense athlete, etc etc and so forth) DO NOT expect the school to provide adequate meals. Pack their lunches. It is impossible for schools to micromanage lunch to meet the needs of every individual.

    • Amy Kubal
      October 4, 2012 at 6:15 am

      Great point – the school lunch program does need to evolve and change, but ultimately we can’t expect the system to be a ‘perfect fit’ for everyone.

  2. Kelsey Marksteiner, RD
    October 4, 2012 at 8:08 am

    Great article, Amy. I was lucky to grow up in a town where we had a wonderful chef (at a public school, no less!) who made great meals. Sadly, this is definitely not the case for most schools.

    I think another part of this is getting nutrition education into schools. Of course there will be a lot of misinformation about nutrition, but I think for the most part kids would learn that eating whole foods is good.

    I created a nutrition education program for 2nd and 3rd graders that I taught last year (and will hopefully teach again this year – waiting on grant money at the moment) and it was WONDERFUL. The kids loved it, and I focused a lot of the science of digestion – which the kids absolutely loved. They got to learn about how their body takes food and breaks it down in the different body parts. They got to draw stories about it, and learn different hand movements for each of the steps the food takes in the body (i.e. making waves with their hands to learn about peristalsis). Really a great experience. I used a MyPlate-esque technique, but instead of having there be a “Grains” item, instead it was “Starch”. I even had a couple kids who were gluten-free so we talked about that as well!

    Kids are SMART and they want to learn about this stuff. It’s just a matter of providing smart nutrition education! Once kids learn about healthy food (and they learn how to make it as well), they are SO much more likely to want to eat it.

    …so that turned into a very long comment! But awesome job, Amy! The foodservice world is tough so kudos to you. And thanks for a wonderful article.

    • Amy Kubal
      October 4, 2012 at 8:46 am

      Thanks Kelsey! And you are so right! Education is a HUGE piece. When all the kids know is McDonalds and frozen pizza it’s going to be hard to convince them to try squash and broccoli. They need to hear the message and see it in action!! :)

    • Sara
      November 25, 2012 at 10:50 pm

      This is a PHENOMENAL idea! I totally agree that most kids are sponges and like to absorb as much information as possible… especially at that age. I wish you the best of luck with your program!

  3. MJD
    October 4, 2012 at 8:19 am

    Since giving up bread, we’ve started making sweet potato pancakes (from Practical Paleo) and using them as a substitute for bread in almond butter and jelly sandwiches. We have Larabars and Trader Joe’s no sugar added fruit strips for some days, but some days they get cut up apples, some pecans and/or almonds, one of my daughters likes spinach in her lunch and the other likes bell pepper. Before we started sending spinach, we almost fell out of our chairs one night at dinner when our oldest said, “Mom, why don’t you ever pack me spinach for lunch?” So, this year we sat down together and talked about lunch ideas that they would like. It helps us pack stuff that they will eat and helps them understand why we won’t pack some things.
    Every now and then they get the school lunch when we don’t plan ahead enough to make their lunches.

    • Amy Kubal
      October 4, 2012 at 8:44 am

      These are great ideas and nice job setting an example!

  4. Karen
    October 4, 2012 at 8:25 am

    Both my boys, age 8 and 11, packed in a paleo lunch and have been all this school year. Today it was turkey/salami rollups (they like the toothpick). Organic strawberries, grapes, baby carrots and US Wellness beef jerky. Fruit goes over better with them (and is better cold) so I tend to let that go to school. At home we have the sweet potatoes, the kale, the broccoli, cauliflower, squash…

    • Amy Kubal
      October 4, 2012 at 8:43 am

      That’s AWESOME and a perfect example of it starting at home! Way to take control!! :)

      • Karen
        October 4, 2012 at 5:32 pm

        And after school today, my oldest told me his friends were all jealous of his packed lunch. Apparently, the school’s hamburgers today were particularly “gross”.

  5. NJ Paleo
    October 4, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Thank you for this article — it was well-thought out and well-written, and it brought to light some points that I had not thought about with regard to school lunches.

    I pack my kids’ lunches (my kids are 10 and 12), and we talk about why they are taking meats in a thermos and fruits & vegetables to school for lunch. I did get a comment from my daughter about how her friend (who is a gymnast who trains 5 days a week) “gets” to bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chocolate chip cookies, and a fruit rollup every day for lunch. I asked her who packed the lunch, and she said her friend’s mom. I said, well, that explains it as her mom is very overweight! But I was surprised that a girl who is an athlete is being “fueled” this way by her mother who is an elementary school teacher and should know better…..apparently not? It did give me another good opportunity to talk with my kids about what is proper fuel for a growing and athletic body. Nutritional education really does begin at home, for better or for worse.

    • Kim Argel
      October 10, 2012 at 10:14 am

      I’m so PO’d by the Post from NJ Paleo …because I would hope that we’re not teaching our daughters to say, “that explains it as her mom is very overweight(basically called her FAT)!” We’re on these blogs because we’re all trying to learn to eat better…not judge those who haven’t! Besides, you never know for sure what your kids are/aren’t eating at school. My daughter trades her paleo lunch items all the time. I just let it go for the most part and know that she has a really good Paleo breakfast and dinner at home and hope that I’ve taught her well enough to make the right choices for her body during the times when she’s not with me. I definitely do not want her to think she’ll be “overweight” if she doesn’t pack a good paleo lunch everyday. Girls have enough to worry about…

      • Amy Kubal
        October 10, 2012 at 11:12 am

        Very good point. Teaching our children to be ‘healthy’ should be the focus of our message – not focusing on the ‘this will make you fat’ mentality, but instead on the ‘this isn’t as nutritious as…”.

  6. Janknitz
    October 4, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    We pack healthy lunches for our daughters at home, but my daughter recently shared with me why a lot of kids at her school don’t eat the nice shiny red apples that are handed out with school lunches. Most of them at this age have orthodontia so they CAN’t eat whole apples, celery, etc.

    Sometimes, it just takes some logical thinking to see where the problem may lie.

  7. Joshua
    October 4, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    I was talking with a friend who works in elementary school education and they were told yesterday that the elementary school students would be limited to no more than 2 oz of “protein” per day. This in a rural district with very poor students who sometimes only eat what they get at school. I just don’t like the idea of somebody 1000 miles away regulating what little kids are eating. I appreciate the fact that they’re trying to reduce obesity, but I’m not convinced that those regulators have any idea what causes obesity.

    • Amy Kubal
      October 5, 2012 at 4:22 am

      There is definitely room for improvement, for sure.

  8. Lpjohnson
    October 5, 2012 at 4:35 am

    My boys take homemade soup or casseroles in their thermoses everyday. Meat, bone broth, lots of veggies, sometimes with potato or rice or fat egg noodles. I make a big pot of soup on my days off, then freeze in thermos-size portions to be reheated before school. If you do cheese, there are lots of great recipes for pizza crust out of cauliflower, cheese, & egg. My boys eat this up plain, as pizza, as crackers, or bread. Yesterday, my kindergartener asked for cabbage & sausage.

  9. Gabby
    October 5, 2012 at 4:48 am

    Many dietitians really do not get at the root of obesity. Still stuck in calories in and calories oot.

    Cutting back protein has to be driven by budget strictures.

    Getting children to eat what is good for them absolutely has its roots in how they are “conditioned ” at home. “Top down ” eating regulations pushed from a school lunch room?? Good luck.

    Thanks for writing this piece.

  10. mister worms
    October 5, 2012 at 6:34 am

    I’m thankful that packing a lunch for my pre-K kid is an option. I try to provide a variety of little things and hopefully she’ll find something she likes. Today was plain whole milk yogurt, chicken sausage, sweet potatoes and a mini gouda cheese. Other things we pack: dinner leftovers in a thermos, sliced chicken/turkey, eggy coconut flour pancakes and various fruits & veggies cut to bite sizes.

    At our school, the lunches are passable. Yes, they have grains but I’d rather see a brown rice and bean meal plus veggie than pre-packaged convenience/fast food crap with an ingredient list that’s a mile long. Still, there are pizza days, chocolate milk (skim of course!) and snacks like crackers and pretzels which are rather junky, imo. But I’m glad for progress like no juice or soda, no fries, no vending machines full of candy bars and pop-tarts, etc.

  11. Nikki Hughes
    October 5, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Haha! Our directional cheat was Never Eat Shredded Wheat!!! So funny and still appropriate ;)

  12. Caroline
    October 6, 2012 at 10:09 am

    I enjoyed your article Amy. I drove on a 3rd grade field trip last week. 2 of the kids in my car get the “free” lunch program. For the first time I got to see what was in them. . . peanut butter and grape jelly UNCRUSTABLES, chocolate milk, and a baggy of raw vegetables (mini carrots, cherry tomatoes, and broccoli). I was happy to see the vegs! But, as you mentioned, what good are they if the kids don’t eat them? I watched 1 of the kids toss the whole baggy straight into the garbage, and the other the same, after eating 1 baby carrot. It’s such a multi-faceted problem. I suspect those kids aren’t expected to eat raw vegs at home perhaps. . or the flavor doesn’t stack up when the “vegetable” they are used to is McDs fries, or processed “fruit” snacks?

    • Amy Kubal
      October 6, 2012 at 1:12 pm

      That is a PERFECT example! So much of the stuff that’s truly healthy is thrown away! Instead of complaining about the school lunch program parents need to teach their children about making good choices and encourage schools to do the same in the classroom and lunch room!

  13. Ryan Pearce
    October 7, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    “Parents and families need to take responsibility for their children’s health.”

    Amen to that! So many people cannot wrap their minds around actually setting up fundamentally sound values at home; they think the school (namely, the government) needs to tell kids what to eat.

    Thank you for your advice and continued sharing of knowledge Amy.

  14. Anthony
    October 11, 2012 at 7:01 am

    I am a public school teacher and the lunches are so bad the kids eat junk food instead (cookies and slushies). I usually say something to them about eating healthy but they respond with “would you eat that food?” Second of they bring lunch there is no refrigeration or microwave for them to use. As a parent I try to have my kid eat paleo but when we send him to school the teachers usually have cheeezits and oreos for them to munch on in class. How can you compete with that?

  15. D
    October 13, 2012 at 9:03 am

    I am a teacher. I have students who would eat more of the fruits and vegetables, but they are not allowed to have forks! The cafeteria serves a spinach salad that is really quite good, but the leaves are not torn up at all. Very difficult to eat with a spoon!

    • Amy Kubal
      October 13, 2012 at 9:23 am

      No Forks??? What’s the deal with that? Teach them to use chopsticks?? Or heck, eat it with there fingers!! :)

  16. jenn
    October 17, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    My husband and I have transitioned to a paleo/primal diet and are feeling much better. My teens, especially my daughter – a sophmore – has been very resistant. It is also difficult when the “health” lessons at school constantly emphasize low fat/whole grain approach and she chooses to believe her teachers over her “counter culture nutrition advice” Mom. Any advice would be appreciated! I’ve shown her some of the articles about the science behind everything but she’s really resistant to surrendering her cookies and ice cream.

  17. Sara
    October 29, 2012 at 8:00 am

    LOVE this post.

    When I first met my husband, his kiddos were used to living the bachelor life with him – eating convenience foods pretty much all day, every day. Bananas were the only fruit in the house. Chicken nuggets and fries were the norm.

    The first time I cooked for them, his youngest (then 5) proclaimed that the chicken took “too long to chew.” (This was no dried out piece of meat – it was a beautifully roasted chicken breast.) Compared to chicken nuggets (which are basically chewed for you in advance) and french fries, it was hard work eating real food!

    That little guy’s learned a lot in the last two plus years. He’s come SO FAR. Now, he loves veggies, fruits, various meats. He just asked for seconds on a chicken and veggie curry I made last night! And when commercials come on TV advertising Tru Moo or McDonald’s, etc, he reminds his brothers, “They’re just trying to get you to buy their food – it’s all junk food and will make you sick!”

    I didn’t force him to eat anything. I didn’t push. I just serve healthy meals each day and make them healthy lunches. They still buy school lunch on occasion, but they know how much better they feel when they eat right and often pick fresh fruit/veggies for sides and reach for the plain milk to drink instead of chocolate or strawberry.

    It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you work with your kids, you can sincerely change (and save!) their lives.

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