Backlash against healthy school lunches going too far – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Last week, the New York Times featured a front-page story about the new school lunch program, which replaces fried food, French fries, burgers, pizza, and chicken fingers with increased fruits and vegetables. The article focused on how the program was causing kids to toss food in the trash bin. Indeed, a federal law, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 set a standard for healthier foods in school lunches. The Times article was incendiary in my opinion. The photograph splashed on the front page showed several plates of lovely green lettuce discarded in the trash bin at the end of the cafeteria line.

The article raised several serious concerns that call out for a response. One billion kids throughout the world are deprived of food, shelter, and clean water; 200 million are chronically undernourished. They would be grateful for a nutritious, balanced school lunch that provided them 850 calories, an amount many don’t see in an entire day. Honestly, where will it end? Kids are making videos showing themselves collapsing from hunger. In the hit song “We Are Young” by Fun, one student on the video sings, “My friends are at the corner store, getting junk so they don’t waste away.”

Secondly, fresh fruits and vegetables are a luxury that should be coveted, not trashed. The Times article makes much out of the fact that school lunches have become more expensive as a result of these changes – how much more expensive? They now cost a whopping $2.60 cents. 850 healthy calories for $2.60 cents; Sounds like an incredible bargain to me. And there are subsidies for those kids who can’t afford the $2.60. Additionally, the government recently approved an increase in the amount it reimburses schools for meals, provided those schools implement the new guidelines.

Third, childhood obesity is an epidemic in America. The percentage of overweight children in the United States is growing at an alarming rate, with 1 out of 3 kids now considered overweight or obese. Too many kids are used to eating calorie-laden, fast food options—including pizza and chicken nuggets in school lunch—that are high in fat, sugar and sodium. We should be celebrating, not attacking, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act because it offers an alternative to these kids. While the school lunch program was established to deal with the endemic problem of childhood hunger—a problem which has by no means been solved—the bigger issue today is the rising tide of obesity. Scientists now estimate that children of this generation will be the first in history to have a lower life expectancy that their parents. Obesity plays a major role in this frightening development.

Fourth, what this article really illustrates is the importance of teaching children good nutrition early in life. The Web site KidsHealth suggests teaching kids early to eat and enjoy fruits and vegetables. The site notes that “Kids, especially younger ones, will eat mostly what’s available at home. That’s why it’s important to control the supply lines — the foods that you serve for meals and have on hand for snacks.” Exactly. KidsHealth recommends working fruits and vegetables into the daily diet. If you don’t teach kids to enjoy these healthy options at an early age, lettuce on the lunch tray won’t look appealing. But unless parents teach kids that salads and fruits and vegetables are not only healthy but can also taste really good, kids won’t develop a taste for these foods. As a result, they land in the garbage bin.

At the end of this blog is a list of suggestions to help parents foster good eating habits for their children. They are common sense suggestions that, if followed by American families, would not result in teenagers tossing perfectly good lunch offerings into the trash because they’ve been raised to think French fries, pizza and chicken nuggets are the only desirable lunch options. I think the New York Times did a disservice to the cause of improving the health and nutrition of our nation’s teens by sensationalizing this issue.

Follow these basic guidelines:

  • Work fruits and vegetables into the daily routine, aiming for the goal of at least five servings a day. Be sure you serve fruit or vegetables at every meal.
  • Make it easy for kids to choose healthy snacks by keeping fruits and vegetables on hand and ready to eat. Other good snacks include low-fat yogurt, peanut butter and celery, or whole-grain crackers and cheese.
  • Serve lean meats and other good sources of protein, such as fish, eggs, beans, and nuts.
  • Choose whole-grain breads and cereals so kids get more fiber.
  • Limit fat intake by avoiding fried foods and choosing healthier cooking methods, such as broiling, grilling, roasting, and steaming. Choose low-fat or non-fat dairy products.
  • Limit fast food and low-nutrient snacks, such as chips and candy. But don’t completely ban favorite snacks from your home. Instead, make them “once-in-a-while” foods, so kids don’t feel deprived.
  • Limit sugary drinks, such as soda and fruit-flavored drinks. Serve water and low-fat milk instead.