Weighing in on School Lunches

My Generation

Regulating the meat, milk and calories of a kid's meals for 25% of their weekly meals will not affect obesity rates. But it will make kids hungry.

Published on: October 5, 2012

I was sitting down for a fine luncheon with the Swedish Minister of Agriculture one day during my August trip to Sweden, when my Facebook feed began filling - first with a trickle, then an explosion - of comments, rants and general outrage regarding new USDA regulations regarding school lunches. Suffice to say, people were not happy.

Enacted last spring and launched into effect for this school year, the new guidelines require just 8-10 ounces of protein per child per week, for grades K-5. For grades 6-8, it's 9-10 ounces per week; and in high school, they get 10-12 ounces of meat (or meat alternatives!) per week. My North Dakota friend, Katie, was particularly upset, given that her teenage athlete son is offered 750-850 calories per lunch. While my little second grader will scarf (parts of) his lunch, ride home on the bus at 3:30 and grab a snack, her son has to head to sports practice after school.

A sample lunch from our elementary: Nacho supreme (tortilla chips, ground beef, nacho chees), Mexican rice, lettuce and tomato salad, orange salad with marshmallows.
A sample lunch from our elementary: Nacho supreme (tortilla chips, ground beef, nacho chees), Mexican rice, lettuce and tomato salad, orange salad with marshmallows.

The interesting juxtaposition to learning these new guidelines while in Sweden was that at that very lunch, the Swedish ag minister touted their school lunch program. So I followed up and secured some data. Charlotta Eriksson shared that a 10-13 year old student in Sweden is allotted a maximum of slightly more than 1 oz. of protein per lunch per day. They get a minimum of 2.75 oz. of carbohydrates.

So there's that. And I'm just going to add, we had way more than an ounce of meat for lunch that day.

But I digress.

Here's what I think about school lunches at our small-town elementary school.

BTY (Before This Year): They were heavy on processed foods. The stuff I would call "bought in frozen bulk, baked and served." There was a lot of kid food, i.e., chicken nuggets and spaghetti. Some days, the main entrée might be a "Bosco Stick." That translates to a breadstick stuffed with cheese. Other times, it was a PB&J uncrustable. I'm not altogether sure what that is, but I am 90% sure it wasn't lovingly made by a lunch lady in the school cafeteria. There also seemed to be a lot of cold food: sub sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, etc. Vegetable choices were questionable on some days; I don't necessarily consider corn chips to be a vegetable.

What did we do then? I went through the menu at the first of the month and marked off the days I deemed unfit - measly entrée or insufficient vegetable/fruit. The kids looked at the rest of the days and if they liked the meal, they ate at school. If they didn't, we packed a lunch. And always, I sent $0.30 and the kids bought a carton of 2% white milk.

TY (This Year): I took the uproar with a grain of salt. I kinda liked the looks of the new menu, if only in general. It has actual hot food most every day. And actual vegetables. And actual fruit. As a potentially skeptical journalist, I recognized a certain degree of publicity fluff: instead of peaches it now calls them "chilled peaches." Pepperoni pizza is now "whole grain turkey pepperoni pizza." Right-o.

The downside? Some of the sides are questionable not for their vegetable content but whether any red-blooded American first grader will actually eat them. Three-bean salad? Not gonna happen. Tomato cucumber salad? Ain't no way when you're seven years old. Or nine. Or maybe 36. (Sorry - I'm anti-cucumber.) And Mexican rice, as was on today's lunch tray? Untouched. By an entire table of second graders. And fourth graders.

And the milk…2% is no longer an option. Only skim. That's probably my real gripe. Because my kids went from drinking 2% white to drinking chocolate skim. Because they really, really don't like white skim. This turn of events makes the new rules counterproductive, as my kids now consume more calories, and from chocolate no less. My solution has been to buy some nice Thermos containers and send white 2% milk from home. So far, so good.

I did convince my kids to give the new menu a try, and they did  for a month. After a month, they pretty well cycled through the menu and discovered what they liked and what they didn't. The upshot is they maybe eat school lunch one day a week. Partly, that's my decision too, because if they like the entrée but they won't eat the veggie, they might as well bring a balanced lunch from home that they actually will eat.

A couple weeks ago, I spoke with our school board president, who happens to be a dairy farmer himself. He agreed with my displeasure regarding the milk situation. And he added that our cafeteria workers now spend 20 hours a week filling out paperwork related to the new school lunch guidelines. That's 20 hours they aren't spending preparing food or sourcing food. This is not a positive development. He also said that with all the problems in our district, the milk one wasn't worth fighting. In my mind, that's telling; here's a dairy farmer, in charge of the school board, saying our rural district has so many other problems that the skim milk one isn't worth fighting over.

That says a lot about what's going on in our rural districts. Food choices are important to our bureaucrats, enough so that they think they can regulate the food choices of 25-50% of the weekly meals of an average kid and somehow make a difference in their obesity. But the fact is, the school can't change anything that the parents aren't on board with. A child who eats junk - or maybe just nothing - at home can't be positively affected by regulating what he or she eats for 5-10 meals a week. This is where bureaucratic regulation cannot reach. And it's why it won't work in schools, as Morning Joy Farm points out.

I'm on board with more creative meals. With trying new things. But remember there are kids who don't get anything at home. Don't limit the choices they have at lunch. Don't cut their meat and milk.

And as a farmer, take a moment to ponder what it is when a government body wants to limit meat and milk. Why is that? Why cut out the stuff that fills kids up, that makes their brains work harder? The skeptical journalist in me wonders what the agenda really is.