I wrote this for Food Service News this spring. Stay tuned for more thought leadership pieces…

Lunch as a Classroom is One Solution to the Child Nutrition Problem in America Today

We have all heard about the changes in school lunches that have led to complaints and boycotts. Why is this happening? The new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules have changed what our kids eat at school: the types of food, the quantity, and the calorie content. 

Originally, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was designed to provide a healthy diet for growing children, but during recent decades, most kids were overfed and undernourished when eating the food the NSLP served. That needed to stop. 

This latest strategy is aimed at serving children nutritious, calorie appropriate food while encouraging them to develop healthy eating habits at a young age. The hope is that they will continue these habits for life. New studies show this strategy is helping curb childhood obesity in some regions of the U.S., but there has been fierce resistance from some parents, policy makers and schools, because of the perceived overly restrictive calorie limits. 

I do not take issue with the regulations. The real issue, as I see it, is the situation that prompted the regulations in the first place. Let’s take a closer look at the problem, the results, the government’s involvement and a possible long term solution. 

The Problem
The problem of overfed and undernourished children stems from societal and parental influences that lead kids to adopt unhealthy habits and fails to teach them how to make smart, healthy choices. Our society has not traditionally promoted healthy living. Instead, our food environment promotes calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods rather than nutrient-rich foods. We haven’t seen our government subsidizing fresh vegetables like broccoli, lettuce, carrots, etc, but rather we have seen subsidies for commodities such as corn which is used to make high-fructose corn syrup, a key ingredient in many processed foods. These highly processed products are readily available and extensively marketed to every age group.

Parents are a key catalyst for unhealthy habits. What we learn as children by observing our parents can strongly shape how we live the remainder of our lives. Parents are choosing meals with quick prep times because the family is overscheduled with activities and sports practices. They are also working late and do not have time to cook, so they purchase processed, ready-to-eat foods for their children to prepare on their own. Kids are not learning what healthy food looks like, how to prepare it, or how proper nutrition enhances their schoolwork, social skills, artistic abilities and sports performances. 
               
The Results of the Problem
Poor nutrition leads to unhealthy children with unhealthy life habits. Today, over 30% of kids are overweight. For the average child, one in four meals each week is eaten in the car and one in four meals is fast food. Studies show these unhealthy habits contribute to cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes. Kids are even developing diabetes while they are still in high school! These illnesses are preventable for at least 95% of the people who get them, just by making diet and lifestyle changes. 

Government Involvement
The health of our citizens and the financial soundness of our healthcare system are eroding  because of our poor lifestyle choices. The government is stepping in to try to solve this problem by positioning schools to be the catalyst for change. The new school food requirements include age-appropriate calorie limits, larger servings and more variety of fruits and vegetables, and more whole grains. The hope is that the revised nutrition requirements and education will help reverse the trend toward obesity and chronic disease. 

A Long Term Solution
Are the regulations a good thing? Yes, for the most part, but there are drawbacks.
On the negative side, students who aren’t used to eating vegetables and fruits as the mainstay of their diets may choose not to take what is being offered on the serving line. They will then say they are being starved, which further perpetuates the negative perception that has stigmatized school lunch for decades. Education and marketing will be needed to overcome this.

Another drawback is that the regulations may be an unwelcome challenge for school kitchens that are trying to be more creative. This stifled creativity may contribute to decreased job satisfaction, may make staff less likely to attractively stage and actively market the new foods to students.

On the positive side, I like the concept of providing structure for school nutrition and starting with the youngest generation gives them a chance to learn these skills. If school is a place to educate our kids, then the cafeteria should be no different. We need to make lunch a classroom-simply serving healthy food is not enough. We must also educate kids on how to make smart choices. This is not hard to do if we believe the studies that show that eating smart will help our children excel in just about everything they do from academics to play. 

In a perfect world, if parents begin to make smarter choices for themselves and their children, there will be no need for these regulations at all. In the meantime, lunch as a classroom providing a starting place and some hope for the future. 

 

Written by Chef Marshall O'Brien  for Food Service News, May 2013