Forget the national budget. If you want to debate a really hot topic, let’s talk school lunches.
School nutrition standards have been at issue for decades (remember the is-ketchup-a-vegetable controversy?). But in the months since President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which calls in part for improving the nutritional quality of government-subsidized meals and snacks served to millions of students across the nation, it seems there are more voices in the mix than ever.
We’re accustomed by now to hearing Jamie Oliver speak with passion about his Food Revolution, including his effort to break school kids’ dependence on chicken nuggets and sweetened, flavored milks. His arguments appear to be falling on deaf ears in Los Angeles, where he’s been trying to convince public schools to let him work his magic in their cafeterias.
Oliver’s not the only one calling for an end to flavored milks in schools. The added sugar and calories those drinks contain have been criticized by people such as Ann Cooper, the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” who says kids will be happy to drink plain organic milk if it’s offered to them in an appealing way. But many others argue that if kids don’t have access to flavored milk, they simply won’t drink any milk at all.
Nor is milk the only item at issue. In Chicago, it was recently reported, most kids are no longer allowed to bring lunch from home. School administrators ascertained that home-prepared meals were typically filled with junk-food snacks and decided that everyone would be better off eating a school-provided meal. As you might imagine, some families have taken umbrage.
With the new federal school-meal legislation in place, the USDA — which has oversight over school-meal programs — is charged with creating new rules to govern the content of those meals. According to this account, the USDA’s being lobbied by all sides, from representatives of various agricultural entities and trade agencies to the School Nutrition Association. For its part, that association has sent out news releases saying that in the midst of all this wrangling, school-nutrition professionals, with the limited resources they’re provided, are managing to provide nutritious meals such as extra helpings of fruit and vegetables and pizza made with whole-grain crust, low-fat cheese and low-sodium sauce.
All of this raises important questions about whose responsibility it is to decide what to feed America’s schoolchildren, who should determine what’s healthful and what’s not, and what role parents play in that decision-making process. We also have to consider whether serving nutritionally sound meals at school is itself part of the curriculum; teaching kids what foods are best for their bodies by offering such foods at lunchtime.
What are lunches like at your kids’ schools? Do you pack them a lunch, or do they eat what’s served in the cafeteria? Are you satisfied with the nutrition they receive, and if not, what would you change?