The State of School Lunch… – Nice Health Tip For U

The State of School Lunch…

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The State of School Lunch…

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?

The State of School Lunch…

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