Pet Peeve: Unhealthy School Lunches

Remember school lunches? Do they conjure up memories of “mystery meat” and tater tot casserole? How about mushy canned peas and syrup-laden canned fruits?

When I was in grade school it was so not cool to pack your lunch. Even though the plate lunch was sometimes rather unappetizing, kids would rather buy it and throw it away then be seen carrying a lunchbox or eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The problem for me was the school lunch menu. So laden with simple carbs, fats, and sugars, my mom refused to let me buy it. Instead, she packed my lunch every morning. And I disdainfully ate the carefully prepared and planned, well-balanced items she sent me to school with.

In those days of NPH and Regular insulins, us diabetics did not simply “bolus” for the carbs and eat whatever we wanted for lunch. Thanks to the peaking effect of NPH insulin, we had to eat a carefully planned lunch exactly 4 hours after our “morning shots.” And forget about an extra shot of regular insulin at noon. I was on a strict two-shots-a-day schedule, so there was no room for adjustment.

And the atrocious school lunch just did not fit into this careful lifestyle. So I watched with envy as my classmates ate peanut butter fudge bars alongside fried chicken sandwiches, buttered white bread, and buttered canned corn. And they washed it all down with chocolate milk. Oh how badly I wanted my own half pint of chocolate milk.

The fact is, I didn’t even like fried chicken sandwiches and I actually really like peanut butter and jelly, but I just wanted so badly to fit in. My Cabbage Patch Kids lunchbox was a screaming target announcing that I was different from the other kids. If only the school would have offered a green salad every now and then!

The unhealthy tradition of school lunches continues here in my neck of the woods. I occasionally glance over the lunch menu in the newspaper and I am floored by the level of fats, carbs, and calories. Not a fresh vegetable or piece of fruit in site. And they still wash it all down with chocolate milk!

I have been arguing against the awful nutrition in school lunches since I was in grade school. My mom recalls proudly the time that I was standing in the lunch line waiting for my (2% white) milk and a looked up at the server, then pointed to all of the items she was dishing out and declared, “Starch, starch, starch, starch.” In junior high and high school, I wrote research papers, persuasive essays, and school newspaper articles about the unhealthy aspects of our school lunches and of the National School Lunch Program. But my voice was just not loud enough. And my friends loved the peanut butter fudge, chocolate milk, and pizza, so their shouts of appreciation drowned me out.

So when I saw this article in Time Magazine (U.S. Schools’ War Against Chocolate Milk ), I was so glad to see that someone with some credibility and power is finally standing up for our children! It seems that a few school dietitians are finally taking a stand, and they are starting with the chocolate milk. Here is an excerpt from the article:

One 8-oz. serving of reduced-fat chocolate milk has nearly as many calories and sugar as a 12-oz. can of Coke. Encouraging students to regularly consume the drink, they say, is contributing to an already worrying childhood obesity crisis.

Ann Cooper, Director of Nutrition Services at Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District points out that If a child chooses chocolate milk instead of regular milk every single day for a year … they’ll gain about 3 lbs. because of the extra sugar and calories. “Over the course of a K-12 education, that can add up …”

Yes! That is what I have been trying to say since grade school! And the problem has only gotten worse in recent years. As our food supply becomes more and more commercialized and as calorie-dense but nutrient-poor foods become cheaper to produce and to purchase, our poorest children are the ones who are suffering the most. A couple of years ago, my husband and I made a concerted effort to switch to more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and organic proteins. Our grocery bill nearly doubled.

Couple the cost of healthy food and the ever-increasing availability of cheap, unhealthy food with our ever-more sedentary lifestyle, and it is easy to see where the childhood obesity crisis develops. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and prevention states that 17% of children in the United States are overweight, a number nearly double the rate in 1965. (See Prevalence of Overweight Among Children and Adolescents: United States, 2003-2004)

And while you might argue that it is not the school’s fault that our children live on fast food and potato chips during their home hours, I would argue that it definitely is the school’s responsibility to offer a healthy, nutritious meal that does not contribute to the problem, especially if they participate in the National School Lunch Program.

Speaking of the National School Lunch Program … The program was founded in 1946 and over 101,000 schools participate. Sadly, the requirements have changed little since the program began. Basically, in exchange for cash subsidies and donated commodities, schools are required to provide a minimum amount of calories, protein, calcium, iron, Vitamin A and Vitamin C over the course of a week. In 1995, they also began to restrict the amount of fat to 30% of the total calories of the meal. Schools must also offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children (See SUBCHAPTER A—CHILD NUTRITION PROGRAMS PART 210—NATIONAL SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM and the National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet)

The catch here, of course, is that there is no maximum allowable amount of each food group or of calories. And carbohydrates don’t appear anywhere in the requirement. So while the school is required to serve at least 667 calories per week to its K-6 grade students, it can offer WAY more calories than that. And as the calorie count goes up, so does the allowable fat amount because the fat restriction is a percentage of the total calories provided.

In 1946, when calorie-dense food was much harder to come by and our children were much more active, this plan might have been a good one. Our children needed more calories in any form. This is not the case anymore, though. The majority of our children today have access to plenty of calories. The problem today is that they are lacking vitamins and nutrients.

As a mother-to-be, it looks like I will be following in my mother’s footsteps, packing a healthy lunch and forbidding my son or daughter from purchasing the school lunch. I guess I can only hope that those dieticians win the chocolate milk war before my kid enters grade school.

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2 Comments on “Pet Peeve: Unhealthy School Lunches”

  1. Lyrehca Says:

    Hear, hear! This post brought me back to my elementary school, circa 1977 and on, when me and the student with cystic fibrosis always asked for (and got) the two special containers of skim/low fat milk when everyone else drank chocolate.

    Someone asked me once if I could drink a skim chocolate milk, and I pointed out that the chocolate milk actually was a low fat milk, it just had a lot more sugar.

    Fast forward to today, and now I worry about the snacks that are served at my kid’s daycare, too.

  2. […] might recall that I reported in Pet Peeve: Unhealthy School Lunches that current regulations set a minimum number of calories, but do not set a maximum number of […]

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