school lunch, school lunches
Bradley C. Bower/AP

School Lunches Still Unhealthy

March 26, 2010 07:01 AM
by Colleen Brondou
Congress wants to create healthier standards for all foods served in our nation’s schools, but will kids eat healthier lunches?

Legislating a Healthier School Lunch

On Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved legislation that would permit the Agriculture Department to establish healthier standards for all foods in schools, including in vending machines. According to Mary Clare Jalonick, writing for the Associated Press, the legislation would also include a greater number of low-income children eligible for free or reduced cost meals.

Under the legislation, typical cafeteria foods such as pizza and hamburgers would be made healthier, not eliminated altogether. “Many of the most difficult decisions, including what kinds of foods will be sold and what ingredients may be limited, will be left up to the Agriculture Department,” Jalonick wrote.

The bill would increase reimbursements to schools by 6 cents per meal; schools would have to demonstrate compliance with the new standards in order to get the reimbursement. The legislation would also provide funds for farm-to-school programs, acting as an incentive for schools to purchase foods from local farms or grow their own food on school campuses. Farm-to-school programs have proven successful at two Oregon school districts, for example.

School Lunch in America

What is being served in our school cafeterias? One teacher set out to show the world with her blog, “Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project.” She calls herself “Mrs. Q,” and although she blogs anonymously, she identifies herself as a female teacher in the Midwest. She has promised to eat the lunch served at her school every day for a year, and blog about the experience, with photos.

According to Rosemary Black, writing for the New York Daily News, Mrs. Q “is hoping for changes in the lunchroom, not just at her school but at other schools around the country.” 

Many thought New York City’s lunchrooms had made healthy changes to school lunch menus. “The health-crazed Bloomberg administration” claimed that it had vastly improved school lunches by cutting fat and calories, the New York Daily News reported in January. “[B]ut critics charge the standard cafeteria fare is still far from healthy.”

“It’s more window dressing than real change,” nutritionist Susan Rubin, founder of the Westchester-based advocacy group Better School Food, told the Daily News. “Just cutting the calories and fat doesn’t make this processed food healthy.”

The Daily News surveyed area lunchrooms and found that they regularly serve processed foods such as “prefab grilled cheese,” mozzarella sticks, chicken nuggets and pizza.

“Bronx high schools were scheduled to offer pizza at least nine times this month,” according to the article.

Changing School Lunch Menus, Changing Kids’ Tastes

It’s easy to point out that schools need to serve healthier options for lunch. But “[a]rguably more important is the role parents play in teaching their children about nutrition and making healthier choices,” Rebecca Ruiz writes for

Even if schools started serving baked chicken instead of chicken nuggets and fresh, raw carrots instead of French fries, would kids eat it?

“Modeling is so important,” Kerry Neville, a registered dietitian in Kirkland, Wash., and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, told “I see so many examples of parents saying one thing and doing another.”

If parents are serving and eating unhealthy food at home, why would kids eat healthy food at school? Perhaps what’s really needed is a radical change in the American diet and our cultural attitudes surrounding food.

According to the Daily News, when anonymous blogger Mrs. Q invited guest bloggers to her site, a Japanese teacher shared photos of the lunch served to his students: sushi, veggies and fruit—foods that are staples of the Japanese diet.

Likewise, in France, a country where quality food and dining are so valued, school lunch menus are a reflection of the components that define French dining in general. Four- to five-course meals are the norm, served over a lunch period of an hour and a half. School lunch menus are highly detailed and posted at the school every Monday.

“The variety on the menus is astonishing: no single meal is repeated over the 32 school days in the period, and every meal includes an hors d’oeuvre, salad, main course, cheese plate and dessert,” Vivienne Walt wrote for Time magazine in February.

While high school students in the Bronx are getting pizza at least nine times in a month, French preschoolers are getting a different five-course meal every 32 days. Certainly offering healthy options in our school cafeterias is a first step. From there, education on nutrition—and reinforcement of healthy eating at home—needs to step in.

Healthy School Lunch Crusade Goes Online

In 2009, chef Ann Cooper teamed with Whole Foods to launch a Web site, The Lunch Box, devoted to healthier school lunches. Cooper insists that food and nutrition are intrinsic to a quality educational experience. 

“Kids don’t just learn math and history and science at school,” Cooper said in an interview with Grist’s Tom Philpott in January 2007. “They also learn how to eat, how to take care of themselves. ... Food needs to be seen as part of the curriculum.”


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