by Nyla Booras
It’s no secret that school lunches in America are notorious for not only being unappetizing, but also the complete opposite of nutritious. In fact, the phrase “cafeteria food” carries a negative connotation of slimy, soggy, mysterious food that shouldn’t be considered edible.
Here in America, it’s well-known that we are battling an obesity epidemic that’s wreaking havoc on our citizens, and on many other advanced, industrially countries globally. Underlying this, however, is the rap sheet of obesity-related diseases quite literally killing off our people, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension, and numerous cancers, to name a few.
Yet, what’s even worse is that this disastrous monster of an epidemic has reached far beyond just crippling our adult population with sickness. It is manifesting itself onto our vulnerable children. And it is a shame to say that one of the outlets through which it is doing so is our schools.
A whopping 90% of students eat lunch provided by their school, with a total of 30 million students nationwide participating in the National School Lunch Program, qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. Within these millions of students are many students of low-income backgrounds who depend on school lunch and breakfast as the bulk of their food for the day. Thus, for many students, not receiving a nutritious meal at school means not receiving one at all.
A 2017 study conducted by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health projected that over 57% of today’s children will be obese by the age of 35, based on more than 25,000 children’s current heights and weights right now. Our obesity epidemic, which is public health emergency never experienced before, is just growing in it’s magnitude, and we’re doing little to stop it.
There are many flaws with school lunches in America today, but some of them are outright shocking, let alone disgusting. We don’t have to look further than the infamous “mystery meat” to see this, and mysterious is it indeed. You might be appalled to learn that the meat served in school lunches is of lesser quality than that served in fast food restaurants. To put it bluntly, chains like McDonald’s & Burger King are more adamant on testing the meat they use for dangerous bacteria or pathogens, while the USDA holds lower safety standards for the meat served in our schools.
It’s time we address the atrocity that is school lunches, exposing just how terribly our schools feed our kids, which of course has roots in the resources they are provided with to do so. Thus, like most other contemporary issues, a solution is bound to involve government action. And in the case of school lunches, government is especially relevant.
In 2012, the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act went into effect. It emphasized more whole grains, requiring all breads, cereals, and pastas served to be at least 50% whole grain. It also cutback the amount salt and sugar in meals, began requiring schools to offer fruit daily at breakfast and lunch, offer vegetables daily at lunch, and to remove trans fats in meals, the latter of which is extremely important for children to obtain optimal health.
Trans fat, also known as trans-fatty acid, is found mostly in foods made with hydrogenated vegetable oil – a deceiving killer in its name, implying some nutrition with “vegetable,” but it is nothing of the sort. Hydrogenated oils are used for frying foods, to pro-long shelf life, and maintain flavor, hence why those packaged cakes, cookies, and chips have expiration dates year(s) away. A good rule of thumb is the longer the food lasts, the more unhealthy it is.
All in all, the act was a crucial step in the right direction, and to be truly effective in the long run, we needed to build off of it, and remain dedicated to our children’s health. Yet, our lack of action was reinstated when the Trump administration relaxed these school-nutrition policies implemented under the Obama administration. As a result of the administration’s rollback on these positive, more healthful policies, cafeterias have introduced more sugary drinks, most notably heavily sweetened chocolate milk, saltier foods, and fewer whole grains.
The Department of Agriculture, which sets the rules on school lunches for roughly 99,000 schools nationwide, has claimed the healthier meals provided in schools were being refused by students, and thus it was a waste of resources. However, this was not the case at all. Multiple studies have shown that children were eating these more health-conscoius meals. A study in the Journal of Child Nutrition & Management found schoolchildren were eating more fiber and less saturated fat, and another study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found they were eating about 15% more fruits and vegetables.
An investment in our children’s health is entirely worth it, and if looking from an economic standpoint, has a high return. It is widely understood among medical professionals, that children who are actively eating nutritional lunches, are able to focus better in school, thus achieving educational success, which better prepares them to enter our workforce and contribute to society. It is as simple as investing in human capital, if one wants to look at the benefits economically, but what’s more is, we have a moral and social responsibility to provide people, especially our children, with the resources to live a healthy life, and food is the most basic, building block of those resources.
Secondly, children who learn healthy eating habits early on, which are taught in school when you provide nutritional options, and can be further taught comprehensively by means of health and nutrition classes, have a high likelihood of carrying these good habits into adulthood.
Nonetheless, legislation alone will in no way solve the issue. We must also make a strong effort to change the culture of junk food and unhealthy habits that’s been projected on our children. In our association of “kids meals” being pizza, fries, hamburgers, refined pastas, and the likes, we are setting them up for an early life of health complications, likely to last into their adult future. We need to stop assuming that it’s a waste to serve kids healthful meals of vegetables, whole grains, legumes, etc. because “kids aren’t going to eat that.”
A cultural shift towards a more positive outlook on healthy foods is not only possible, but also something that can be done through exciting and educating projects with children. For example, many school administrators have begun growing gardens with the help of students. Planting your own food is a rewarding experience, and one that children have gotten excited about when implemented, not to mention the additional perk of locally sourced food in your cafeteria.
Of course, the ability to start a garden isn’t widespread in America today, and that’s okay because there are plenty of other ways to get children excited about healthful eating, as well as more appreciative of what that means. Interactive nutrition classes are encouraged, because in order for kids to be receptive towards this strong change, they can’t just be told what to do, or rather what to eat or what not to it. It’s important for them to understand why, and they deserve to know the benefits of healthy eat and the harms of eating the processed, stereotypical “kid” foods.
Furthermore, it’s true that addressing our public health crisis that is the growing obesity epidemic, specifically in our children, will take a larger effort that involves federal legislation and a dramatic change in our cultural expectations of what food for kids should be. In conjunction with culture, we must also continue to encourage physical activity, as opposed to ever increasing screen time, yet I would urge this to be done carefully.
Exercise is of course vital for healthy kids and adolescents, but in a society that is fanatic about weight-loss, we must shift what the goal of exercise is. It’s important to frame exercise as an activity to boost one’s physical health, moving away from viewing it as a stressor conducive to shedding weight, because that implicitly makes it grueling work, and something to take part in temporarily.
When exercise is promoted in the right context, as an activity that keeps us healthy and happy, it is once again enjoyable, especially when done with others. And for kids, having fun with their friends is something they can easily get behind.
And so, as we look to make the next step in the right direction to seriously combat a public health epidemic engulfing our kids, I urge our focus to be on advocating for legislation that values our children’s well-being, because adequate government spending for nutritious school lunch programs is not only a wise investment, it is simply a social responsibility we need to take more seriously. Likewise, our society
is in dire need of a cultural shift that praises eating healthy, and doesn’t condone our kids living off junk foods during their childhood years because “they’re just kids.” They are just kids – they’re vulnerable and in need of guidance during the most crucial years of their lives, when their future habits and understandings of food are being formed. We owe it to them to lead them in the right direction