School kids around the country are tweeting rather unfortunate pictures of the meals they're being served at lunchtime, and thanking first lady and healthy school food advocate Michelle Obama for their bowls of mush and mystery proteins.
The tweets, which have carried the not-so-subtle #ThanksMichelleObama hashtag, were being sent out at a rate of 40 per minute late last week, but started to gain momentum some 10 days back and are still continuing to be posted as of this morning.
USA Today tracked the rise of the "yucky photos" with this neat graphic:
In some cases, the sarcastic tweets have poked fun at the strange juxtaposition of healthy foods, such as fruit, and peculiar ones, like whatever this mealy substance is:
— Hunter Whitney (@huntwhitney4) November 13, 2014
Or this ball of -- it's unclear.
— Jess Sency (@Jess_Sency) November 18, 2014
In others, the posts have taken issue with the new, purportedly healthier meals more generally. Often, because they look sad — at least, when photographed:
— Grant Harris (@GrantHarris33) November 22, 2014
— Spenser Wright (@ApexApocalypse) November 22, 2014
One user even tweeted a side-by-side photo of an American public school lunch and French public school lunch to drive the point home:
— Brianna Nicole (@okayitsbri) November 21, 2014
"We've seen the photos being tweeted," said Sam Kass, executive director of Let's Move! and senior policy adviser for Nutrition. "But we don't dictate the food that schools serve — school districts do."
The country's public school meal program has undergone a good deal of change over the past few years, largely driven by a national push for more nutritious lunch trays. And Michelle Obama, arguably the school nutrition movement's most public proponent, has become a symbol of the healthier meals. She was an instrumental player in the implementation of new health standards in 2012, which mandate minimum fruit, vegetable and whole grain servings, as well as maximum sodium, sugar and fat contents. And she helped inspire more recent changes that took effect this school year banning schools from serving soda and sugary drinks.
By some measures, the new requirements have been wildly successful. A recent study in Virginia found that school children were eating significantly healthier meals when the food was chosen by their school, rather than their parents. A similar study, conducted earlier this year in Massachusetts, concluded the same thing. Parents, according to senior author Jeanne Goldberg, were serving lunches "comprised more of packaged foods than anything else."
But just because children are being served healthy food doesn't mean they're eating it. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that some 60 percent of vegetables and 40 percent of fresh fruit are thrown away (for good measure, even more vegetables — some 75 percent — were thrown out before the USDA school meal standards went into effect). A separate study notes a significant increase in waste in many schools ever since the new health standards were implemented.
Based on some of these photos from children, it might not be surprising why so much of the country's public school meals are going to waste. But there's also a long tradition among school children of complaining about the quality and appearance of their cafeteria food. The hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama, though it has gained momentum over the past couple weeks, seems to date back to 2012. And though some schools might be serving meals unfit for iPhone cameras, others claim to be proud of the produce on their lunch plates.
— Dayle Hayes (@SchoolMealsRock) November 21, 2014
"We’ve seen thousands of examples of healthy, delicious school lunches that meet the new standards being made across the country by talented school chefs," said Kass.
The difference, then, might not be Michelle Obama's efforts. It could simply be that everyone has a camera on their phone, and a public platform to share pictures.
Let me tell you something, kids, school lunches have ALWAYS been bad. We just didn't have decent camera phones. #ThanksMichelleObama
— Bassey Etim (@BasseyE) November 21, 2014
"Student complaining about school lunch is nothing new — it has nothing to do with the new lunch standards," said Kass.