Healthy School Meals Act: More of the Same

Mrs. Q over at Fed Up with School Lunch: The School Lunch Project has been getting a lot of press lately about her attempt to chronicle her year of school lunches. As the school lunch debate continues to heat up, so do the comments and commentaries on her blog. I’m amazed that she has managed to stay anonymous for so long. I hope she’s able to make it all year without being outed.

Recently, she posted about the Healthy School Meals Act of 2010. On the surface, this sounds like a great plan. Even the name of the plan sounds good – how could you go wrong with healthy school lunches? That’s what we all want, right?

But, I took a look at the plan, and now I am not so sure. The plan is less about a well-balanced, calorie-appropriate meal for our children and more about plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy. According to the program’s website, the act would

improve children’s eating patterns by encouraging the inclusion of healthful plant-based options in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. This important legislation will introduce plant-based foods to schools, increase the availability and affordability of these foods, and provide incentives for schools to provide daily plant-based options.

Don’t get me wrong, there is merit in a vegetarian diet and lifestyle, and one can definitely eat a varied and balanced diet while avoiding meat and dairy. But this proposal does not seem to give much guidance in terms of which plant-based items to include on our children’s trays. What, exactly, is “healthful?” And what makes this group think that plant-based options are not already on school trays? Many of the items we detest … white bread, soy fillers in the meats, breadings and coatings on the “nuggets” and “patties”, white potatoes in all of their many forms, other starchy vegetables like corn, and peas, and canned, syrup-laden fruits appear regularly on school lunch trays today, and they are all plant-based.

Given that the current National School Lunch Program considers canned baked beans, frozen French fries, and instant mashed potatoes in the vegetable category, I shudder at the thought of what my child’s tray would look like if his school opted to replace the meat and dairy options with plant-based options. I’m picturing trays loaded with white bread, rice, pasta, frozen potatoes, and canned corn. Sure, the website suggests soy milk instead of cow’s milk, but what’s to stop a school from replacing the cow’s milk with calcium-fortified orange juice or, worse yet, calcium-fortified “orange drink?” And what’s wrong with skim white milk, anyway?

These plant-based alternatives are some of the cheapest foodstuffs out there. Seeing as our schools are struggling to find enough money to feed our children, it only makes sense that these are the types of foods they would migrate too. Goodbye chocolate milk and chicken nuggets, hello French fries and white bread.

The problem with school lunches today is not hard to recognize; it’s a lack of balance. What our children need is a healthy, balanced meal, complete with fiber-rich carbs, lean proteins, and vitamin-dense fruits and vegetables. Simply replacing one food group with another is not the answer here. The answer is switching from calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods to lower-calorie, nutrient-rich ones. We need to replace the French fries and baked beans with REAL vegetables – green beans, tomatoes, broccoli, and spinach, for example. Get rid of the soy-filled and artery-clogging “hamburgers” in favor of lean protein alternatives like chicken breast, ham,  white turkey meat, and low-fat yogurts and cheeses. And beans are a great source of protein, but they are not a protein exchange (or a vegetable exchange for that matter.) We need to count the carbohydrates in those black bean burgers … and those cups of baked beans.


Healthy School Lunches, by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine,

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2 Comments on “Healthy School Meals Act: More of the Same”

  1. Kimbandeira Says:

    Hi! I am a 28 year old woman who has been Type I since I was 9. I recently discovered your blog, and I really enjoy reading it.

    I understand your misgivings here, and I must say I agree with you, particularly as I wonder how this may be a way to funnel more dollars to giant agribusiness concerns, via corn products and genetically modified soy. However, as for the milk question…

    Well, I can only speak from personal experience, as a Black woman who grew up in a poor area of an inner city with other Black and Latino kids. All of us were on free lunch, and for many of us, it was the primary or only meal we got during the day. However, as you may or may not know, most people who are not white (and even many white people) cannot metabolize lactose after about the age of 4.
    This isn’t some yuppie “lactose intolerance” kind of complaint…It really does us ill. So, yeah, while I feel you on concerns about the “orange drink”, I would love for there to be more options available to our kids in schools that acknowledge our health needs.

    Of course, that would mean fresh greens (collards, mustards, turnips, kale, spinach) and vegetables cooked in a sane fashion.

    • nici Says:

      Hi Kimbandeira,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I agree with you that healthy alternatives to milk are a good idea. Unsweetened soy milk seems like a reasonable compromise, especially because the carb and fat content are so low. It’s definitely a better choice than fortified juice or some sort of artificially flavored and sweetened “drink.”

      The way I understand the act, it only requires the alternative drink to have an equivalent amount of calcium when compared to milk. There are no requirements on fat, carbs, or calories. This is a recipe for disaster. The orange drink is much cheaper than unsweetened soy milk, so it stands to reason that the alternative that most schools will adopt will be the orange drink.

      I also think that the tradition of serving 2% white milk and 1% chocolate milk is ridiculous. Our children do not need the extra fat and sugar in those two beverages. Skim milk would be a better alternative.

      Perhaps the best solution of all is a nice glass of water. We all need it, and it’s free.

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