I've been following the drama the past month since the USDA enforced new guidelines for school lunches under the new Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. This means more fruits and vegetables (specifically to include dark green, red and orange vegetables and legumes), slightly smaller portions of meat, and 1% or fat-free milk. The amount of grains hasn't changed but at least half of the grain products offered must be “whole grain rich” (meaning at least half of the grains have to be whole grain). Processed foods must not contain trans fats, and sodium levels have decreased. The calories per meal haven't changed much though the specific recommendations per grade have been slightly altered. Before the suggested range from grades 5-12 was about 785-825, and now they are 600-850.
The reaction to these changes included a viral video,
endless articles covering local schools' reactions (see New York Times, Brookline Tab) that kids were hungry from lack of food or refusing the food, and personal hearsay from parents. A friend and mom who lives in Brookline said that she now packs several snacks for her 14-year-old son because he doesn't like the choices or doesn't get enough. Because the regulations are based on age only, the lunch portions are exactly the same for girls, boys, big or small. It's also required that the meals are sold complete rather than a la carte. So basically you get what you get. This probably means some food getting thrown out (likely the fruits and vegetables), creating food waste and hungrier kids as they aren't eating the full 850 calories.
My son entered kindergarten this year so I've seen the menus and was surprised how appealing they looked. One menu offering was mac and cheese, broccoli florets, a fresh strawberry cup, and animal crackers. Another was warm ham and cheese on a bagel, roasted cinnamon butternut squash, and a petite banana. He even gets Domino's pizza on Fridays but instead of breadsticks, it's served with broccoli-carrot slaw, graham crackers, and a fresh pear. There are still cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets...just in slightly smaller portions and served on whole grain rolls. Yes my son usually brings home the fresh fruit or bean salad that I end up eating, but he's not complained yet about being hungry.
Maybe it's because I'm a nutritionist that I salivate when scanning his lunch menus, making my opinion not very objective. How can I complain about meals that follow the MyPlate guidelines, my most frequently used tool when teaching patients about balanced eating? I think the school menus look awesome. I think kids, especially those who stay for an extended day program or who participate in sports, should pack several nutritious snacks like peanut butter crackers, dried fruits, nuts, granola bars, cheese sticks, dark chocolate, and even protein bars for the athletes. Parents should provide extra cash to purchase 100% fruit juice or milk from the vending machines. If kids are complaining that they can no longer buy their favorite meal of several slices of pizza, French fries and cookies, I've got no sympathy. No one should be eating meals like that every day. Or maybe they are and this is why childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years (this is why I think the video above is ridiculous as it portrays the whole school as athletes; definitely not the norm as most kids are sedentary, a major cause of obesity). Hopefully school lunch directors will stay strong during this early phase of expected resistance. Hopefully they'll learn to prepare these nutritious ingredients in more kid-friendly ways. A decade ago, restaurants that tried to offer a healthier menu option often failed in flavor due to a lack of cooking know-how. Now, healthful restaurant entrees are commonplace and taste better than ever. My hope is that kids will someday look forward to these school meals and be a lot healthier inside and out because of it.