New Lunches Hard to Swallow

10/13/2012 7:00 AM
By Margaret Gates Regional Editor

Next week we celebrate National School Lunch Week, although many students this year are finding very little to celebrate.

New guidelines in place this year — part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act championed by first lady Michelle Obama and the USDA — have sparked a figurative food fight of sorts in the nation’s school cafeterias.

The idea behind the legislation is to combat childhood obesity by feeding kids lower-calorie, more nutritious school lunches. That means more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, rather than fatty processed foods.

Could anyone really argue with that?

But complaints about taste and small portion size have prompted students in at least one district to boycott their school cafeteria.

Elsewhere, students created a musical parody on YouTube to express their displeasure with the new lunch offerings.

And in at least one school newspaper in Pennsylvania, even the principal was quoted as saying the food didn’t taste as good.

In many schools, the result is less food eaten, more food wasted and more kids feeling empty inside — not exactly the desired results.

So what’s the solution? Do we give kids what they want?

Hmm. When a child at home doesn’t like what’s put in front of him at the dinner table, does the parent simply replace it with a cupcake or some cookies to fill him up? Hopefully not.

Whether it’s right or wrong from a nutritional standpoint, what we feed our families in our own homes is our business. That’s the way it should be.

But there is no reason we should expect our schools to provide anything less than a healthy, nutritious, filling meal for our children.

Having said that, a little common sense wouldn’t hurt, either.

One-size-fits-all meals don’t work for any age, particularly high school.

For instance, does a 6-foot-5, 250-pound football player who practices two hours after school really have the same caloric needs as a 5-foot, 100-pound debate team captain?

And what of the complaints that the food simply doesn’t taste good? Seems that’s been a complaint of school cafeteria food for decades.

Over the years, however, schools have given students more options, some of them healthy — like salad bars — and some of them, not so much — like ice cream sandwiches, french fries and soft pretzels. It’s not easy to compete with that.

Kids need to learn to make good food choices, and that needs to start at home. But schools can help. Students might be more inclined to make the right choices if they understood the importance of a healthy diet and if the healthful food were presented in a tasty and appealing way.

And let’s remember: A little treat in moderation now and then is OK, too.

Appropriately, October is also National Farm to School Month, an effort to promote Farm to School programs that bring healthy, nutritious locally grown food into school cafeterias while giving local farms and economies a boost.

According to, the core mission of the program is to establish relationships between local foods and schoolchildren.

That effort is promoted through food-related curriculum and experiential learning, such as farm visits, farmer-in-the-classroom programs and school gardens.

During the recent Homegrown School Lunch Week in Maryland, part of the state’s Farm to School program, students in various schools sampled locally grown watermelon, plums, nectarines and squash in their lunches. Some even dined on bison burgers and took a trip to the local bison farm where it was raised.

Getting students more involved in the process makes them more likely to embrace the solution.

The new food guidelines are a good idea but they need work.

Rather than jamming mediocre new lunches down students’ throats, let’s get students, school chefs, farmers, nutritionists and the like working together to find a solution that kids will want to swallow all on their own.

With any luck, they’ll form habits that will stay with them long after their cafeteria days are gone.

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