Do you want fries with that?

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I found a post on Freakonomics titled “Can Organic Veggies Transform Education?”, and it intrigued me.  It was referencing an article in The Guardian which cited research that has shown that the implementation of healthier school lunches in the UK have led to better performance by students academically.  Jamie Oliver has now come to the United States and is trying to implement the same thing in American schools.  The town he is currently working in is Huntingdon, WV, which in 2006 was cited by the CDC as the most obese city in America.  Oliver is trying to eliminate processed foods in school lunches in favor of healthier, fresher ingredients.  I would think that most people would be thrilled with what Oliver is trying to do in America, however, he has met substantial criticism.

According to the article in The Guardian, David Letterman “insisted diet pills were the only way to lose weight in the US,” when Oliver was on his show.  What kind of an outlook is that? Have Americans really become so lazy that we can’t adjust our eating habits to be healthier? Benefits have been shown regarding Oliver’s program in England, but Americans shouldn’t have to rely on one man to save us from obesity.  Luckily congress is working on legislation that would provide stricter regulations for what is considered an acceptable school lunch.  According to an article in The New York Times this bill would for the first time in history limit the calories in each meal.  I remember the school lunches that were served in my high school, and I am sure the calorie counts were ridiculously high.  Many of the standards have been based on the requirement of a certain number of breads, vegetables and proteins at each meal.  However, this doesn’t ensure that the meal is healthy.  In my high school a standard meal was chicken nuggets with a side of mashed potatoes, gravy, a roll, and an optional piece of fruit.  Very few people took the fruit, and it is not a good sign when your entire meal is the same color, especially if it is all white.  However, this is a standard meal across the country because it has 1 protein(the chicken nuggets), 1 bread(the roll), and 2 vegetables or fruits(the fruit and the potatoes).  I don’t know about you, but when i was little, my mother always told me that potatoes didn’t really count as a vegetable at meals.  While the chicken nuggets meal may fit the requirements it is a highly processed meal, that I am sure has more calories than many parents know their children are eating.

The government needs to take proactive measures in changing the guidelines for school lunches.  It is cheaper for schools to make lunches that are highly processed, because processed foods are cheaper than fresh ingredients, and until schools are required to change they will continue to make lunches the least expensive way that they can.  This is especially a problem for poorer students who are on free or reduced cost meal plans.  They don’t have a choice about what they are eating, and in the end the food the school is serving them is setting them up for failure.  Meals high in carbohydrates and sugar cause students to crash later in the day.  These students will be at a disadvantage in the classroom and potentially fall behind their peers, and people who are obese are less likely to be hired than thin people, because employers are concerned about the health risks that come along with obesity.  This creates a vicious cycle in which obese people are less likely to earn as high a wage, and therefore are forced to continue to buy processed foods because they are cheaper.  In 2009 the CDC found that childhood obesity rates for 2-4 year olds were more prevalent among low-income families.  The government needs to take action regarding school lunches, because many habits we learn as children we carry with us throughout life.  Nutrition is part of the curriculum in many elementary schools, but what kind of hypocrisy are we teaching them when we serve them french fries as a vegetable?  We need to not only talk the nutrition talk, but walk the healthy walk.

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7 Responses

  1. Great article. children also need to be encouraged to get more exercise. Walking or biking to school are great ways to include exercise every day.

  2. I agree that schools need to be required to serve lunches that meet a specific standard; however, no legislation gets passed without riders so it would be interesting to see what riders would also get passed. Sometimes the riders can end up more damaging than the good of the bill. Also, I understand why the schools pay so little for highly processed food. Many schools are dealing with major budget cuts and have had to lay off teachers (at least this is the case in California) and so it is hard to justify spending the extra money on healthy, expensive food when classrooms are overcrowded and arts and athletic programs are being completely cut. Also, I think some of the responsibility needs to fall on the parents. Both of my parents worked, and so I would make my lunch with my mom the night before so that I was eating stuff that was healthy and that I liked. My elementary school served relatively well balanced meals. We had a salad and fruit bar along with a carb and protein and milk. Also, by high school I think that it is important for students to be responsible for themselves. At some point people need to be able to make their own decisions because there will not always be the cafeteria employees there to feed them.

  3. This is such an important issue! I am involved with a lunch time reading program in a City of Hartford elementary school (a school with just about the worst test scores in the entire City.) The kids come in with their lunches, usually my little friend has on his tray: tater tots, a sandwich of some kind (like a hot dog or a fake rib sandwich – not making this up!!), maybe milk. If he gets a bottle of water with his lunch, he has a Kool Ade (sp?) tablet that he drops into it. Sometimes he supplements the school lunch with a white bread sandwich from home. I get frustrated – if we truly are trying to do everything we can to help these kids to be successful, we need to care for the whole child. They need nourishing food, they need regular exercise every day, these things are essentials along with the tutoring help that we provide. I agree that it is worthwhile for federal school lunch requirements to result in nourishing lunches. To the extent that they do not, they must be changed, or made more flexible. Did you know that in the ’80s there were controversies regarding school lunches and Pres. Ronald Reagan said the lunches are fine – but that was only because he categorized ketchup as a vegetable!! A lot of what is required is not merely regulation changes, but culture changes, that truly support healthy lifestyles. As Jessie notes, at some point everyone will need to make their own decisions about what they eat, but do our current culture and social norms support bad decisions? The kids in many of the schools in Hartford come from families where parents are eking out a living and they depend upon the free school lunch (and sometimes breakfast too) program to provide their children with the daily calories they need. Shouldn’t we make sure those calories are the best they can be??

  4. I agree at a point everyone needs to be able to make their own decisions regarding what they eat, but in an elementary school there typically is one option per meal, and if the meal they are serving isn’t healthy or nutritious the students buying their lunches have no other option. They don’t even get the chance to make a healthy choice. Jessie, your school may have offered healthy alternatives but sadly this is not the case at a lot of schools. Children need to learn from a young age how to eat healthily. It’s like teaching children to read. We can’t just show them movies throughout elementary school, neglect teaching them the basics of reading, and then by high school expect them to choose to read classics such as Jane Austen on their own. If by providing students with tater tots and fake rib sandwiches from a young age we are teaching them that this is an acceptable and school approved meal, how can we expect them to make the choice to get fruit instead of fries in high school. Jessie makes a good point that it is hard for schools to justify spending more money on lunches when there is not enough funding for the arts. However, I think it deserves to be mentioned that a weak music program is unfortunate, but enough unhealthy food can give you diabetes, heart disease or eventually kill you.

  5. This is an interesting topic to think about. School lunches such as the ones described here contribute immensely to the problem of childhood obesity in our country. Nutrition classes that are taught mostly during health classes in the middle school years do little when unhealthy habits were enforced everyday by elementary schools. However, as you noted, even with healthier options such as fruit, many kids are reluctant to take it. Children from poorer families may not have the option of having their mothers replace parts of the lunch with healthier options. How do you suggest the government adapts the lunch system within schools and ensures that students will eat the balanced meals if they are served?

  6. Ok, I am kind of a freak about this, but “vegetable” is not a significant category. A vegetable does not exist in biological terms. It is a cultural category and misleading as a nutritional tool.

    Potatoes are TUBERS, a kind of root.
    Lettuce, spinach, etc are LEAVES.
    Tomatoes, Apples, Squash are seed-bearing FRUITS.
    Peas, lentils, beans, are LEGUMES.

    You should eat all of these things.

  7. At my kids’ schools here in Lewisburg, they are given a choice between regular milk and sugar-enhanced chocolate milk. When the nutrition director (of a firm that got an outsourced contract) asked a parent group for feedback, many of us complained about this. How can you expect a kid to choose white milk over chocolate or strawberry flavored milk? Her answer was to defensively give us a handout produced by the national dairy council that said that chocolate milk is healthier than soda! This may even be misleading as milk come sin smaller sizes and I am not sure it was an ounce to ounce comparison.

    School lunches often are horrible. Who likes boiled broccoli?

    I say give them as many raw veggies and dressing as they like. Does ranch dressing have fat? Sure. But raw broccoli = ranch is way better than McChicken McNuggets with McMashed Potatos and McChocolate McMilk.

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