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School Lunches: Advocate For Better Choices

Updated on February 18, 2014

Got junk?

Chicken nuggets, ketchup, tater tots, some kind of cheesy looking mix and a sugar treat.  No true vegetables or fruits.  This lunch contains no fiber or antioxidants.  It brings on blood sugar spikes and is overloaded with trans fats.
Chicken nuggets, ketchup, tater tots, some kind of cheesy looking mix and a sugar treat. No true vegetables or fruits. This lunch contains no fiber or antioxidants. It brings on blood sugar spikes and is overloaded with trans fats.

Why are school lunches still unhealthy?

Each month I get a school lunch menu and once again, I get fired up. I get outraged and angry. Frustrated. I would love to be able to take a break from packing lunches each day and be confident that my child is still eating something healthy at school. As for now, that's not happening.

Over the past few years, we've seen an increase in childhood obesity, as well as a rise in childhood diseases. They are eating more junk and becoming less active. Schools are suffering funding cuts and programs, like physical education, are lost.

Now, don't get me wrong, the parents are the first resource for their children when it comes to their health. It is the parents who have the power to focus on healthy eating and good activity. However, school is a child's work. It is where he/she spends a large majority of time, and therefore should be supportive of a healthy lifestyle too. Instead, the schools focus largely on academics and test scores, leaving behind the true foundation for proper learning, which is good health. When children are not healthy, they cannot learn social skills, problem solving techniques, or how to make friends. They cannot concentrate on a new math problem or ways to comprehend a short paragraph. They cannot muster up the energy to finish their homework completely and benefit from learning a new skill. It all boils back down to the health of the child.


Yuck!

What exactly are these kids eating?

Since there has been some "movement" in the recent years toward healthier school lunches, I have seen a few small changes that just may be a little bit positive. Gone are the Mystery Meat days at school, where some kind of slop was placed on your tray. Now, the words "Whole Grain" will appear on the menu, and some kind of fruit is usually included. That's about it though.

These menus are created by someone who must believe that they are smart. They obviously have to follow government guidelines to include a protein, a dairy source (since they are being funded heavily by the dairy association), a grain, a vegetable, and a fruit. Sounds good right? Look a little deeper.

A sample menu item that my kids bring home usually looks sounds like this:

Whole Grain Pizza, French Fries, Fruit Cup, Milk

While "whole grain" is much better than plain enriched white flour, it still doesn't make this lunch a very good choice. More often than not, the cheese on the pizza is imitation. Although I'm not a fan of today's dairy (due to all of the additives), imitation cheese is just as bad. Just what IS imitation cheese??? So the cheese and milk are your "dairy" as well as your protein, but I'm sure that pepperoni is on the pizza, which is also a protein, but filled with more additives and nitrites that will eat up your digestive system. All of those have no fiber, antioxidants, or anything really beneficial. Instead, we've just fed our child plenty of additives and chemicals.

French fries should not be counted as a vegetable, although it is noticeable here that it is counted as one. White potatoes are a starch and high on the glycemic index. They spike blood sugar levels, leaving a person wanting more food in a short period of time (or leaving them hungry for more). In addition, the fries were "fried" in some kind of oil, which generates unhealthy trans fats in your child's bodies. The fruit cup can pass, but we don't know for sure if the fruit cup is mixed in syrup or fruit juices. Usually it is the syrup, which is loaded with sugar. So, overall, I'm looking at a constipated, pre-diabetic, chemical-laden, early heart disease lunch.

The horror!

Demanding more REAL vegetables!

Allow me to vent a minute:

Corn is NOT a vegetable.

Peas are NOT a vegetable.

French fries are NOT a vegetable.

Pizza is NOT a vegetable.

Ketchup is NOT a vegetable.

Okay, I feel better. Let me explain.

Corn is a grain. Often, in school lunches, it is put in the "vegetable" category. Unfortunately, the corn these days is genetically modified (a topic for another article). However, in the event corn is being served in lunches, children still deserve to have a real vegetable! Why not broccoli? Carrots? Beets? Parsnips? Cauliflower? And.....many kids actually LIKE salads if they would be given the chance to eat them!

Peas are a legume, part of the bean family. These are a protein source and should be treated as such. When peas are served, once again, another vegetable should also be given.

The fact that French fries are even included in the vegetable family in school lunches makes me want to hurl. The potato is completely devoid of any nutritional value, once it has been fried. In addition, like I mentioned above, it is more a starch, and has similar effects as a grain. When potatoes are served, again, a real vegetable should be served as well.

It has been debated by the "food officials" whether to include pizza and ketchup in the vegetable category, and many people's responses were, "ARE YOU SERIOUS?" Sure, pizza includes tomato sauce, but you really need a whopping amount of it on the pizza slice to even gain any antioxidant benefits. Ketchup, on the other hand, is mostly high fructose corn syrup. It serves no value.

Why can't we demand real vegetables in our kids lunches? Vegetables don't cost that much. If someone with brains can take a look at the funding and the school lunch programs, they would find that if they eliminated some of the extra sugary items and packaged items, they would save money. In addition, meat and dairy cost a whole lot more than vegetables. Why not have an alternative protein source that day, like beans? Kids love beans!

It takes a voice, many voices in fact to make this change. I've heard of petitions started and succeed. It is worth a shot. Do not be afraid to speak up and be the movement in your school. Personally, I plan to be a "voice" when my children enter their new school next year. Although I recommend packing school lunches as much as possible, I still fear those children who do not have that option from home. Many school officials will argue that it's either they eat what is offered at school, or they don't eat at all. Such a shame.

Don't give up hope though! But most importantly, don't wait around for "someone else" to do something either!

Be a Voice!

Would you advocate for healthier school lunches?

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    • kaiyan717 profile image

      kaiyan717 4 years ago from West Virginia

      I told myself the same thing when I started my son in daycare, corn and potatoes are a starch, not a vegetable. My son never tried hot dogs until he went there and you couldn't pack a lunch because they wanted all to want the same. He is home now, and that is about the only way I see him eating nutritiously. Great Hub, a topic that needs to be addressed! How can we expect children to make a better decision, while those being made for them are no better.

    • KerryAnita profile image

      KerryAnita 4 years ago from Satellite Beach, Florida

      Great hub and definitely an important topic. It is crazy that processed foods like french fries and ketchup are considered veggies by our school systems!

    • vandynegl profile image
      Author

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi kaiyan717! I completely agree! It is up to the adults in the children's lives to make good choices for them, and when a daycare doesn't support that, shame on them! Here in Ohio, I know that our daycares have "nutritional" guideline laws where children's lunches MUST have a food item from each food group, AND if an item is missing, then it is provided for them. Now, some people may think this is good, and it is when it comes to vegetables and fruits; however, my children don't do much dairy and that is a requirement! I feel that it should always ultimately be the parents choice.

    • vandynegl profile image
      Author

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi KerryAnita! Yes, I know! Like I said, just WHO are these people making these the menus?

    • beingwell profile image

      beingwell 4 years ago from Bangkok

      Hi vandynegl! I would like to know that my children are well-fed at school, too. Well, nutrition-wise, at least. Great hub!! Sharing it to my followers. Thanks!

    • vandynegl profile image
      Author

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi beingwell! Thank you for reading and sharing my hub! I hope to write more on this subject since I get pretty fired up about it!

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      vandyneg,

      This is a very interesting and useful hub. When I ate school lunches in the late 50s and early 60s, I don't remember them being much better than the lunches today. The private school in Thailand where I teach offers lunches for a small price to both students and teachers. The food is so bad with mostly the same fried foods every day, that most teachers take their lunch at small restaurants across the street. Most students, however, have no choice but to eat the food since their parents don't pack them a lunch. The school has a recess in the morning and a short recess before optional classes starting at 4:00. During this recess time, the school offers the students a lot of pastries like donuts and funnel cakes. No wonder my students are getting fatter and fatter each year. I really liked your descriptions of vegetables and actually learned something. Voted up and sharing with followers.

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 4 years ago from New York

      vandynegl,

      This is a much appreciated article and I'm so glad you took the time to write and share it! I too, am appalled by what the schools are serving our kids for "lunch". My 6th grade son just brought home an article handed out by his English teacher from Mrs. Obama's disgust over what is considered "Pink Slime" which is a big part of the school's meat product. Pink Slime, really? The school's lunches were already beyond questionable and to read this article only made me lose my appetite. I’m certainly not suggesting that students are served gourmet meals at school, but I don’t think this is the area we should be worrying about pinching every penny. Truly enjoyed!

      Voted up and Awesome!

      Cat

    • vandynegl profile image
      Author

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi Paul Kuehn! Thank you for sharing your thoughts! That's such a shame that those children are being fed pastries! If I were the parent, I would be not happy! I've already spoken to my son's teacher about the "red" juice they were giving him.....I had to bring it up TWICE! I appreciate your comments and thank you for sharing!

    • vandynegl profile image
      Author

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi Cat, I agree with you! The kids have to be healthy in order to "perform" well in school, both emotionally and academically. If we keep cutting back on expenses in the area of health, everyone suffers. Yes, I'm familiar with pink slime. Some stores are refusing to sell meats that have this. It is smart to look into what is going into our kids bodies. There is such a rise in obesity, ADHD, and other behavioral/neurological problems these days.....we need to look at our foods as the problem. Thank you for reading and commenting!

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 4 years ago from New York

      vandynegl,

      I couldn't agree more! So many of us either just sit back and don't say anything or even worse, jump right in and participate! Why are our bodies and physical, emotional and mental health no longer important? Why is it that we feel the need to cut in these areas and then question what is wrong with the world today? Studies continue to show how much more money is spent in "fixing" preventable health conditions and how our diets are related to our functioning, so are our priorities messed up? I think so. Thanks for speaking up and out and I hope you'll have more like these to offer!

      Cat

    • vandynegl profile image
      Author

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi Cat, Yes, I WILL have more articles on topics like these! I get so fired up about the lack of priorities when it comes to health. I'm working on more hubs as I write this! :)

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 4 years ago from New York

      vandynegl,

      I wish I didn't have to take off to a parent/teacher conference because I really want to get to your hubs. I think everyone caught my attention! You even touch on vegetarian issues, which I have/had spent more than a decade living with... I can't wait to hear your thoughts on that topic as well. I'm glad to hear you have another coming; I love the language you use to get your message out there. I'm interested in the topic but most people just bore me with their "text book" how-to approach. Yours are great! Woo hoo! Thanks

      Cat

    • Doodlehead profile image

      Doodlehead 4 years ago from Northern California

      The schools are not responsible for the health of children. The parents are. If the food is bad the parents need to run for schoolboard or PTA or political office to change the system. Barring that, parents need to make the lunches for their children or send them to private school.

    • vandynegl profile image
      Author

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Thank you Cat! I don't like the text book approach either, unless I need to figure out how to assemble something! ha ha!

    • vandynegl profile image
      Author

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi Doodlehead, Thank you for commenting! I definitely do not blame the school lunches for the total health of our children; however, it is unfortunately where many of the children (specifically lower income) receive the bulk of their nutrition. That being said, school lunches can really use some improvement. I am all about being vocal and I fear my son's future school because they will most likely NOT like me! I make my child's lunches now and encourage all parents to do the same. My article was aimed toward the children and families who don't have the income to send their children to private schools or pack a lunch every day. It would be nice to see tater tots and corn taken off of the menu! Thanks for reading!

    • Tealparadise profile image

      Tealparadise 4 years ago

      I'm also teaching abroad (saw Paul comment on this hub) but in Japan. Lunches here are actually decently healthy, except for about 600 calories of white rice with each one. If kids weren't forced to eat that, I would call it the perfect system. Since everyone MUST eat lunch the same, the cafeteria knows exactly what they will need to serve and there is no waste. They know exactly how much money they have, and how much they can spend. So all of the money goes to getting decent veggies and meat, not to wasted leftovers or unsold product.

      I was going to suggest that this would solve the problem, but as Kaiyan said some programs do require students to eat their lunch and STILL can't get it right. It's incredible that the USA can't handle this relatively simple problem.

      And amen on the cheese. I haven't seen that cheese-product anywhere but school lunches and the worst stadium pizza.

    • profile image

      Deb Welch 4 years ago

      Great Hub. What about Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwichs on White Bread, Pizza. Tater Tots w/ ketchup,Fish Sticks,Hot Dogs? All of these were a staple or a back-up alternative to a main lunch item. They are improving the menus in many schools now. They have fruit selections and real veggies. Why not mashed potatoes with an offering of different toppings?A variety of salads, pasta, green, fruit - if kids had a buffet choice they would choose and eat better and be happier too? Useful and Interesting.

    • Doodlehead profile image

      Doodlehead 4 years ago from Northern California

      Ok. Let's give the children grilled salmon with organic strawberries and green beans almandine with imported almonds because all the ones that say they are "raw" from California are actually either gassed or pasteurized, so let's get the imported ones from Iran

      AllI am saying where're do you draw the line?

    • Tealparadise profile image

      Tealparadise 4 years ago

      Doodlehead- while I agree that there are no easy 100% fixes, it would be simple (though probably costly) to institute some basic reform. They put in the vegetables rules, but people skirt that by calling sauce/potato a vegetable. This could be fixed easily and would make lunches worlds better.

    • vandynegl profile image
      Author

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi Tealparadise! Sounds like Japan has it a little more together :) Any cheese product that isn't real gives me the creeps. Thank you for your response!

    • vandynegl profile image
      Author

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      I have to agree with you Tealparadise! It was once pushed that pizza be considered a vegetable! Sigh......

    • vandynegl profile image
      Author

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi Doodlehead, I see your point. It is not about going over the top though (I don't even get the foods you just mentioned), but it is about simple improvements, like getting rid of the starches as vegetables, like French fries and corn. Give carrots and broccoli a try. On one of the menus I read, it was "Taco in a Bag" and it consisted of Doritos chips, imitation meat, imitation cheese, and sauce. That was it. This lunch, for example, should be banned.

    • vandynegl profile image
      Author

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi Deb! I have read about some schools (not in my area though) that have developed a kind of buffet choice. I think the number one complaint of schools with this option would be food waste since it offers a lot of "fresh" choices; however, once the kids got used to the system, less would be wasted. I know many children who love fresh fruit. Along with this, a lot of kids like to "build" a salad with neat toppings. It is worth a shot, even small baby steps to work toward something like this. In my area, I would just like to see actual vegetables on the menu and not corn and fries.

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