Those School Lunches

I remember arriving to school one morning as the delivery truck was unloading.  Huge containers were lined up outside the kitchen door from Sodexo.  A 5-gallon can of imitation shortening caught my eye.  Pallets of chocolate, strawberry and root beer flavored low fat milk.  Frozen french fries.  Pre-made packaged cinnamon rolls.  I remember staring in awe at this mountain of stuff, wondering which of it actually constituted something real to eat.

The USDA just revised the school lunch rules and included some improvements.  More vegetables and whole grains is a good step.  More low fat products may not be.  School lunches are getting better in some respects but worse in others.  There are more salad bars and more choices for kids.  The kitchens are brighter, more appealing and trendy.

Not that long ago, the smells of freshly baked bread wafted through school hallways.  Our cooks actually cooked stuff from recognizable ingredients.  The head cooks had discretion over what was served, within federal guidelines and very tight budget restrictions.  Making your own was more economical than buying pre-made.

Then came private industry contracting to prepare school breakfasts and lunches.  A handful of corporations now control food service in most schools.  Those businesses know how to get kids to eat and how to keep school boards happy.  There is much more choice and fewer staff, keeping costs low.  The stress on kitchen staff is high, many of whom are only paid for 3 hours per day with no health insurance (another topic for another day).  Dishwashing has been replaced with disposable plates and utensils.  Sodexo's own website lists 2010 revenue of $4.6 BILLION from school lunches in the US and another 3.4 BILLION Euros elsewhere.

There are some good food choices available.  Unfortunately, few kids choose them.  Instead, the line for hamburgers and french fries is as long as ever.  How does a burger and fries meet USDA requirements?  Simple, you CAN add a salad to that meal.  Few do.  And the ample ranch dressing offered and consumed in huge quantities doesn't seem to count.  For a great (if disgusting) eye-opener about choices kids make, see Jamie Oliver's experiment with kids and chicken nuggets.

My greatest concerns with school lunch healthfulness are these three:
  1. Sugary flavored low fat milks
  2. French fries
  3. Processed mystery foods
 Sugary flavored low fat milks

The new rules require schools to serve only low-fat and non-fat milks to reduce fat consumption and address childhood obesity.  Unfortunately, this may be a misguided policy.   I found this explanation about processed milks interesting.  Whole milk contains one ingredient:  milk.  Low fat or non-fat milk replaces the natural flavors from the butterfat with other enhancements, primarily powdered milk of questionable health benefits.

Milk processing has changed for the worse as well.  Once upon a time, when you bought a gallon of milk, it came from one cow.  Later, the advent of pasteurization and homogenization encouraged dairies to process larger batches of milk together.  A dairy with 100 cows might mix it all together, raising the risk of contaminants and infection.  Now the milk industry combines thousands of gallons.  By pasteurizing, they kill most bacteria but also are able to waive inspections.

Worse still are the flavored milks.  Schools still offer "white milk" (and call it that!) but walk through a cafeteria at lunch time and you'll see 30 or more cartons of chocolate milk for every one of "white milk".  Add to that other flavored milks (my school served strawberry and root beer flavored milks also) and you'd might as well serve Coca Cola.  Flavored milks actually contain more sugar.  Yet the industry defends their use (USDA revenue specific to milk is significant):

"Added sugar, when used in moderation and with concern for overall caloric balance, can increase the appeal of nutrient-rich beverages and provide additional choices for children as part of a healthy diet. Excessive weight gain in children is caused by an imbalance between calories taken in and calories spent on activities, not by any specific food or beverage. Keeping in mind variety and moderation as essential guidelines for choosing foods and beverages, nutrient-rich flavored milk can be part of a balanced diet."  From School Nutrition Professionals

French Fries

I applaud the new rules and Michelle Obama's role in pushing them for limiting french fries to one day a week.  We pushed Sodexo for this change in our district and were only able to gain the small concession of no fries on Fridays.  Too many high school students (particularly girls, I've noticed) choose to eat only french fries for lunch.  Even hamburgers, available with the fries, get the snub from some.  The empty calories in over-processed frozen potato strips deep fried in cheap oil, over-salted and smothered in ketchup or ranch dressing epitomizes all that's wrong with school lunches.  Thankfully, this regular feature in school cafeterias is now to be phased out.

Processed Mystery Foods

With the exceptions of fresh vegetables and fruits, there is little in school meals that actually contains only the expected ingredients.  There is a reason for this.  Processed food companies like Kellogg's, Coca Cola, Pepperidge Farms and others pay kickbacks to the contractors for their bulk orders.  Sodexo has been in hot water for its handling of kickbacks in the past, passing on higher costs to districts and the USDA. 

I'm a big fan of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma.  His simplified guide for eating well has three rules:  Eat Food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.  It's the first rule that glaringly gets overlooked in school lunch programs.  Pollan defines food as having fewer than five ingredients and being recognizable by our grandmothers.  Nothing I saw unloaded from that delivery truck fit his definition.

Finally, don't forget the snacks that may also be served.  Our school offered snacks during the morning break.  The cookie smell carried well as students were released from classes and even though other items were offered, I rarely saw anything but cookies in kids' hands.


I've tried in Noggin Strain to offer suggestions for parents whenever possible.  Nothing worse than being told something's wrong with no ideas on how to fix it.  With so much determined at the federal level (USDA) and in corporate offices, it may seem there's little individual parents or even schools can do.  Here's a start though.
  1. Find out what is being served and what choices children at your school are making.  All that's really required is a walk through the cafeteria during breakfast and lunch.  What is the proportion of carbohydrates, proteins and fruits and vegetables?  What kinds of milk do you see?  What is being thrown away?
  2. Talk to your child about healthy eating.  Work on getting him to try new foods by making them appealing (I'm remembering the old cottage cheese faces with raisin eyes and celery mouths).  You might even explore this site listing their favorite fast food ingredients.
  3. Lobby your school board to place additional restrictions on what is served.  Are they receiving full information about what's IN the foods being served?  Probably not.  Simply requiring that ingredient lists be provided to board members could have the impact you desire.
  4. Push to remove flavored milks.  You can't replace them with whole milk (the USDA won't approve) but at least you can make sure that only "white milk" is served.
  5. Contact the head of food service in your district.  Though ours was employed by Sodexo, he was very responsive and cared that principals, staffs, kids and parents were happy.  

Finally, work to get kids at your school outside and playing actively.  Too much sitting all day long is not helping our children's waistlines or general well-being.  At my high school, we built an outdoor fitness area for students that gave them opportunities to move while socializing.  We looked for opportunities to create appealing spaces outdoors (kids love "perches" even more than tables or benches).  Elementary schools have playgrounds.  How many kids can they accommodate at once?

Make sure your school doesn't overly restrict recesses and playtime during lunch.   Are kids forced to sit in a classroom instead of playing outside for not passing tests or for minor violations?

Let's get our kids eating right and moving.   Regardless of your own dietary biases, we can all work together and agree on some things.


  1. Here's an idea from Miss S's school - the kids can have as much of the fresh veggie and fruit bar as they want, for no charge....they are not allowed to have second helpings of the more carb and calorie rich items. So, I thought, well, that is fine, but what kid is going to get seconds on the veggies???? Well, Miss S says she is often hungry enough to go back for more veggies, so I guess it can be good. She is in a growth spurt, so I am happy she "gets" that having more of the good choice, even if she prefers something else, is a good option, instead of feeling hungry and dissatisfied later. I do hope our training about good foods and limiting the treats has helped, but I think that remains to be seen. Check out Berentstein Bears' "Too Much Junk Food" - the doctor does equate filling up with sugar and carbs as being not the right kind of fuel for the body. Mr. Z said, "I need more than just the sugar, I need to have more of the choices that I don't like the taste of so much. I wish the sugar was good for my body." That, from a 4 year old.


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