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Childhood Obesity and School Lunches: Are School Lunches Healthy?

Updated on October 28, 2011

Obesity and School Food: Is there a connection?

Let me just start by saying that Jamie Oliver is my hero. He has once before and is now trying again to reform the nutritional deficits of Americans and combat obesity. Just as in the first season of Food Revolution, he is trying to reform the kind of food that is served in schools, this time in LA Unified District. I will caution you however that if you think think that this problem is unique to LA Unified, it sadly is not. I work for a school district in Michigan and I have witnessed the same things that Jamie Oliver was voicing concern about within the district in which I work. So why am I so hyped up about this? Keep reading and you will see.

This student's lunch was a mix of high and low quality food.  The processed hamburger was served on what appeared to be a whole wheat bun and lettuce, with an orange and strawberry flavored milk.
This student's lunch was a mix of high and low quality food. The processed hamburger was served on what appeared to be a whole wheat bun and lettuce, with an orange and strawberry flavored milk.

Childhood Obesity Facts

Statistics show that between 16-33% of children between the ages of 2 and 16 are obese and most are those who live below the poverty level. Not overweight, obese. What is the difference? Both are considered to be unhealthy but are defined a little differently. Being overweight is defined by as in excess of being considered normal, proper or healthful. Obese is defined by being very fat or overweight; corpulent. So what does this mean in terms of health for the youth of America? Here are some startling facts.

  • Overweight and obese children are more likely to become overweight and obese adults
  • There is an increased rate of heart disease
  • Increase rate of high blood pressure
  • The highest rate of type 2 (formerly known as adult onset) diabetes with our youth in our nation's history
  • Increased rates of cholesterol
  • Sleep problems such as apnea
  • Self-esteem and confidence problems
  • Depression

What do school lunches have to do with it?

The National School lunch program is an important part of keeping our young citizens fed. Many times this is the only opportunity for children to receive a meal. Having said that, wouldn't it be most advantageous to us to provide high quality, healthy meal choices for these young people?

For years I have noticed a trend in my students. After I pick them up from lunch, they are much more "active" than before lunch. Why is this? I have long held the belief that it is the food that is served in the cafeteria. Since there are no labels on the trays of food that are served, I have used our breakfast program to explain my theory.

My district is considered "at risk." This means that 80% of our students qualify for free and reduced breakfasts and lunches. A few years ago, the district received a grant to serve breakfast to all students. Since this program is now served to all students, I have seen the activity level of students increase at the very beginning of the day. Now that it is served in our classrooms instead of the cafeteria, we teachers see first hand the quality of food that is provided to our students. Here are some examples from yesterdays breakfast.

Typical breakfast options.
Typical breakfast options.
Nutritional Facts for the cereal bar.
Nutritional Facts for the cereal bar.
Ingredients in the cereal bar.  Notice the multiple types of sugar listed.
Ingredients in the cereal bar. Notice the multiple types of sugar listed.

Another Sample Breakfast

cereal bar
cereal bar
prepackaged cereal
prepackaged cereal

Please note that there is no fresh fruit served with this breakfast, there is juice that is 100%, and there is a cereal bar that is highly processed and filled with a variety of types of sugar. The milk is white milk with no added flavors however strawberry and chocolate milk options are available during lunch. That is not to say that there is never fresh fruit available, there sometimes is. This usually consists of an apple, orange, or banana.

Here is an example of another classroom's breakfast. I call this a wolf in sheep's clothing. The oatmeal and 25% less sugar labels imply that this is a healthy option for children, but once again it is highly processed and full of sugars. Just take a look at the labels.

How Does Your Child's School Breakfast and Lunch Rate?

Have you ever looked at or asked your child what they had for breakfast or lunch at school?  Try it and see.  If you are not sending your child's lunch with him or her each day then you are at the mercy of others in what they feed your child.  I think that you would most likely be shocked at what is found in most schools.  Many if not all of the foods are highly processed, high in sugar and very little fresh choices. 

Your Child's School Breakfast or Lunch

Have you ever examined your child's school breakfast or lunch?

See results

The Chicago Solution

One school in Chicago, Little Village Academy, feels that their school lunches out perform those that parents send in. Now I have not seen the food that is served in this school so I cannot comment on what the quality is, however they have banned all food from home from being allowed in their school. They feel that the choices that parents send in for their children are not high quality and healthy ones. Is this the solution or does this cross the line?

I have seen some of the things that students in our school have brought to eat during lunch so I understand where they are coming from, hot Cheetos, mountain dew, etc. Clearly these items have no place in a child's diet, especially at school. But from what I have seen, I feel that as a responsible parent, I can pack a much healthier lunch than what I am seeing within my school system. Perhaps the solution would be to ban and confiscate certain items that are brought to school.

Causes of Childhood Obesity

Do not think that I am trying to say that food served in schools is the cause of childhood obesity. There are many factors that contribute to this epidemic. Some of these causes include:

  • Lack of physical activity
  • Poor role models by parents
  • Lack of money to purchase healthy and often more expensive options
  • Genetics

What I am saying is that the quality of food being served in most schools across our nation, especially to those in lower income settings, are contributing to this trend of obesity. I never understood why we need to "flavor" milk in order for kids to drink it. Isn't this the same as handing them a candy bar for breakfast? Apparently Jamie Oliver feels the same way. He demostrated what this equates to for the students of LA Unified for one week's worth of flavored milk servings.

Why is this important to you?

We are as a nation creating a society of unhealthy individuals. The health care interventions that we will need for our young people will soon rival those that we provide for our baby boomer population. This will mean that there is an even greater rise in health care costs which will either mean more out of pocket expenses for you or more contributions through taxes to a national health care system. Either way it is more money out of your pocket on treatment rather than preventative care.

We will also add a very sad statistic to our history. Soon we will have a group of youngsters whose parents will out live them. We are indeed slowly killing our youth. Parents will outlive their children due to complications set on by obesity.

A Personal Note

It truly breaks my heart to see fifth and sixth graders twice the size of me walking down our hallways. It is an epidemic that is destroying our youth and it needs to change. Are school breakfasts and lunches to blame? Of course not. But considering that children spend most of their waking hours in school, it is important for schools to set the tone. If the federal government is sponsoring these programs, then let's stop trying to save a buck now by providing the cheapest cost and quality food only to pay for it later in health care costs.

Jamie Oliver is right, we need a food revolution. Our society is suffering. So what are you willing to do to change this trend? If you are interested in seeing Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, it airs on ABC Tuesday nights at 8:00pm Eastern Standard time. It is truly an eye opening experience.

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    • cardelean profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Michigan

      I know Kelly. My children are only in preschool right now but believe me, they will be going to school with a home packed lunch. I really don't think that most parents have a clue what their children are really being served. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

    • cardelean profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Michigan

      You are welcome roxanne459. It is such a disgrace and I really cannot believe that what we serve our students is government endorsed and funded. We even serve breakfast in our classrooms so I see first hand what they eat. It is really disgusting. I wish more people would realize what these children are eating. It is especially sad because it really preys on the low income families who rely on the government to provide their children with breakfast and lunch, all filled with preservatives, fat and sugar. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      voted up and useful. I feel the same way about the lack of nutritional value found in son's school lunch program. I just send him to school with his own lunch every day. When I join him for lunch I'm sad to watch the kids eat those lunches filled with fat, carbs, and lacking in nutrition.

    • roxanne459 profile image

      Roxanne Lewis 

      7 years ago from Washington

      Thank you for writing this! I have been raging against school meals for a long time and everyone just reacts like I'm a crack-pot. I'm not a fanatic or extremist by any means. I just know that you only have one shot at growing strong bones and a healthy immune system, and that time is childhood. Good for you!

    • cardelean profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Michigan

      I have had similar experiences Stephanie at water parks. It is really a sad state of affairs. I agree that there are many contributing factors but it is more than just teaching them poor eating habits. It is filling them with high fat and high sugar foods that is wrecking havoc on their bodies. For many of my students, these are the only meals that they get. There is little to no nutrition for them. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Leah, I serve breakfast in my classroom every day. It is part of a federal grant that our school receives. We have a soft sided cooler brought to our room each morning with the breakfast already pre-determined. There is no choice for my students at all. So often times they are choosing between junk or not eating at all. The other day it was a frosted cinnamon roll type of cracker or graham cracker. It was full of sugar and that was their only choice. When my kids are school aged, they also will bring their lunch. I appreciate your comments.

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 

      8 years ago from Western New York

      I have heard tales from other parents about the school breakfasts. While there are some healthy options available, there is no adult oversight to ensure the kids are selecting appropriate food for breakfast. Apparently, a local favorite of school children receiving breakfast at school is fruit loops with chocolate milk poured over them. Not only disgusting, but entirely loaded with sugar for few nutrients, and they get a lot of added dyes and preservatives.

      My own son brown-bags it. I pack his lunch (today he has a PB&J, carrots, yogurt, and a granola bar for snack). This way, I not only know what he is getting for lunch, but also know exactly what he has eaten or not eaten, so I can adjust for it by adding in more healthy snacks throughout the day.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 

      8 years ago from USA

      I'm sure there are many factors contributing to childhood obesity, but something has to change for the sake of our children. I don't believe that school lunches are responsible for obese children, but poor school breakfasts and lunches are teaching them poor eating habits that are hard to break. I was shocked last summer when we took our grandchildren to a public water park and saw SO MANY children who were so overweight that they had trouble keeping up with other kids their age. It was sad and disturbing.

    • cardelean profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Michigan

      Hi Deborah, thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, some people would think that this would be a plus however, it is not an increase in alertness, but rather just as you said, an increase in hyperactivity. There are many more fights as well as an inability to focus. I will check out your hub on school food. Thanks for your questions.

      J.S., this has long been a topic dear to my heart. For years I have noticed this pattern, long before Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. It is frightening to take a look at what our children really are eating. Unfortunately it isn't just in schools but in the home as well. I am very picky about what my children eat. That's not to say that they can't have treats but I give them all natural, fruit juice, no sugar added foods as much as possible. Just take a look at a jar of peanut butter or jelly and read how much sugar is added to these. You are essentially feeding your child a sugar sandwich. There are many no sugar options for these basic items and parents just don't realize to choose them. Not only are they better for you but they really do taste better too. Thanks so much for the read, comments, vote up and share!

    • J.S.Matthew profile image

      JS Matthew 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Wow! Just found this in the HubFeed and I am stunned! Every parent needs to know this. I watched the video with the bus-can you imagine? Whew! Kudos to you for posting this! I will share after I vote Up!


    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 

      8 years ago from Iowa

      Great article on an important topic (which I've written a little bit on myself). You observe that your students are more "active" after school-provided lunches and breakfasts. But some people might view being more active as a good thing (vs. falling asleep in class). What types of behaviors do you see? More hyper, more prone to acting out? I don't have kids so I can't make my own observations. Thanks for clarifying.

    • cardelean profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Michigan

      I agree that a nutrition class would be a great addition. I have often said that about teaching parents how to interact with their children daily in an educational sense as well. Many times people become parents before they are really ready and do not have all of the knowledge to be the best that is possible although I believe that they do the best that they know how. This would be a fantastic start.

      I understand what you are saying about the cost of organic foods and what you are saying for the UK is also true for the states. The problem I feel is that often people are not considering what is truly an accurate sense of portion size. When that is being considered, it would almost balance the cost. The other thing is that if people utilized local farmers markets, they would be able to find cheaper options, as well as the frozen varieties as you mentioned. Thanks so much for your great comments.

    • Maggie.L profile image


      8 years ago from UK

      Thanks for highlighting this important issue in your excellent hub. You're quite right that schools as educators have to play a positive part in tackling this problem. I think that it would also be useful to offer nutrition classes to new mothers/ mothers of young children, that offers them guidance on the importance of providing a healthy diet for their children. They could also be given tips on making healthy affordable meals for their family. The argument that people living on low incomes can't afford to eat healthily is only partly true. Although organic fruit and vegetables can be costly, it is possible to buy frozen varieties at a lower cost. Similarly, it can be cheaper to buy porridge oats than sugar filled cereals. (Or this is certainly the case in the UK).

    • cardelean profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks. Seeing it on a daily basis is really concerning. I wish parents realized what is being put into their children's bodies.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      8 years ago from Sunny Florida

      I have to agree. I have been concerned about the nutrition offered by the school lunches and breakfasts. Great article.

    • cardelean profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Michigan

      I know what you mean Simone, I never ate school lunches either.

      Smcopywrite, it is not a solution, but it is a starting point.

      Aunt Danette, we always brought our lunches too, not just for the cost but the selections. Unfortunately for many of these kids, it is free and therefore their only option.

      Thanks everyone for the comments!

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 

      8 years ago from Illinois

      Cara,I'll have to check out that show. My kids rarely ate school lunches, mainly b/c it was cheaper to bag it. They are trying to get vending machines out of middle and high schools but aren't always successful.

      I covered an event recently for the paper which included a health fair. One of the tables had a very graphic visual. To illustrate how much sugar and fat were in various favorite snack items (mountain dew, fritos, etc)the nutritionist had cups filled with sugar or butter indicating how much were in each item. What an eyeopener (although I don't eat/drink that stuff). People (kids) stopping to look didn't realize how much fat and sugar they were getting.

      I gave up chocolate for Lent and I could tell a difference. I too am working on how much sugar I get - hard to break b/c I haven't quite learned to enjoy no sugar in my tea and substitutes/stevia, etc don't sit well with me.

      Great hub, lots of good info and food for thought (no pun intended LOL)

    • smcopywrite profile image


      8 years ago from all over the web

      school lunches can be unhealthy which is sad. if we are at a war on childhood obesity, we better start here

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Uuuuuuugh - school meals are so gross! I always brown bagged it. Like cardelean, I totally agree with what you've said. Great Hub on a very important issue- and great photos too!

    • cardelean profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Michigan

      I sooo agree with everything you said. Everyone who is not part of the solution is part of the problem. I have tried to cut out sugar and have minimized it greatly and am working on clean eating. It is sometimes a challenge but I keep at it. Good luck at your soccer game and thanks for the comment!

    • attemptedhumour profile image


      8 years ago from Australia

      Hi cardelean, yes it's a massive problem literally. Jamie Oliver is a saint knocking his head against a brick wall, but at least he's trying to do something about it. Parents are just as stupid and uneducated but you can't force feed people. Sugar is highly subsidised so the politicians are are guilty too. At least you are aware of the problem. I cut out sugar completely at xmas and i don't ever think about it, apart from feeling great. I'll be playing soccer tonight at 59 and nipping past some twenty year olds. You don't put coal in a Ferrari. Cheers and keep spreading the message.


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