What’s on the School Lunch Menu? More Politics.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) represents the 55,000 school food directors, nutritionists and other professionals that provide school lunch.  Recently, the organization asked Congress to approve waiver requests for schools that are struggling to comply with federal nutrition regulations set by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.  Under the Act, schools are required to make several changes based on scientific evidence to make school lunches healthier, such as lowering sodium while adding whole grains and fruit and vegetable servings.  After decades of little to no rules regarding nutrition, some SNA members have undoubtedly faced challenges implementing the new standards for school lunch.

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But as an organization that claims to be committed to delivering healthy school meals, shouldn’t members be trying to help schools implement the guidelines rather than take them away? Turns out, the organization isn’t just representing school food employees. Half of the SNA’s $10 million budget is funded by processed food companies, many of which have a vested interest in keeping their less than healthy products in schools. Scaling back the regulations provides an opportunity to put products from sponsors like PepsiCo and Kraft back on kids lunch trays.

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I spent three weeks of my dietetic internship working in school food service at the Washington Local School District in Toledo, OH. My preceptor was the food service manager for 11 schools in the district. Over the course of the rotation, I heard a lot of complaints from her and the rest of the staff over the newly released (at the time) nutrition standards. The district had just received 6-cent certification, requiring all schools to participate in an audit just a few weeks later. Though they had taken most of the necessary steps to meet the guidelines, she outlined a long list of hurdles they were facing: inability to find suppliers for whole grain products, fresh fruits and vegetables were too expensive, not having enough staff or proper equipment to process fresh foods, kids throwing away the vegetables, etc.

This food service manager was neither a dietitian nor a chef, she was a manager. She was extremely skilled at working under a tight budget (as most school food service managers have to be), but lacked the passion and skills to create healthy, tasty lunches for the kids.

I expressed my interest in trying to help her work on menus to meet both the guidelines and her budget. To get me started, she asked me to mock “audit” what the schools were already doing. In regards to her complaints: she wasn’t wrong. Kids were throwing away some of the vegetables, and were much happier on a day when pizza and french fries were available. However, I quickly saw why (hint: it wasn’t just because the food was healthier.)

It was the presentation. If you make healthier foods look like no one should want to eat them – no one will, especially children used to being served burgers and chicken nuggets. Pale green frozen broccoli covered in a slimy cheese sauce. A lump of fat-free pureed pinto beans. Canned pineapple chunks swimming in juice. It was really no surprise that tray after tray was taken to the trash with these items remaining.

The pinto beans were served on taco day. Why not wrap them right into the taco instead of placing them in the corner of the tray? How about mixing the broccoli in with brown rice and chicken for a stir-fry? And a few seconds to drain that pineapple juice will make it much more appealing. I thought my suggestions were obvious, but the food service manager seemed perplexed. I made additional recommendations to increase vegetable servings without giving kids the option to avoid them, such as adding sweet potato puree to the spaghetti sauce or pumpkin to the macaroni and cheese.   I also told her about recent research from Cornell University that shows fun names can encourage kids to eat their veggies.  “Tiny Tasty Tree Tops” anyone?

I sympathize with the school food service staff. Most have tiny budgets, a small staff with limited skills in real cooking, and kitchens that have been set up to serve processed food. But, we have to start somewhere. Kids don’t like homework, but it doesn’t mean we should stop giving it to them. It helps children develop positive habits that will serve them well throughout their lifetime. Serving healthy lunches can have the same impact.

Michelle Obama, who has been speaking out against the waiver, stated:

It is our job as adults to make sure that our kids eat what they need, not what they want. If I let my kids dictate what we have for dinner every day, it would be french fries, chips and candy. But we don’t run our households like that, and we can’t run our schools like that.

We can’t throw in the towel just because it’s “hard.” What kind of lesson would that be for the kids?

Alice Waters, sustainable agriculture advocate and founder of the Edible Schoolyard, made this excellent point in a recent Time Magazine op-ed:

By allowing fast-food culture into the cafeteria, we have effectively endorsed that industry’s values, helped facilitate the obesity epidemic, widened the achievement gap and aided an addiction to junk.

Lunch needs to be an opportunity for kids to practice what is being taught in nutrition education.  The science-based standards developed for the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act provide an opportunity for just that.  As Alice points out:

By making lunch an interactive part of the curriculum, we empower children to make their own informed decisions.

We don’t need to scale back the regulations, we just need to help food service employees with implementation. 90 percent of districts are currently meeting the standards. Clearly it is possible.

standardsThousands of organizations and health professionals have sent letters to Congress opposing the waiver.  You can join them by signing this petition at Change.org.

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