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School Dinners

Though it is all over the news these days, the debate and controversy surrounding school lunches is nothing new.  Generation x'ers will remember parents complaining that lunches are not balanced and the government infamously claiming that ketchup counts as a vegetable.  For decades there has been dissatisfaction and concern.  But with obesity, and the inevitable health issues that come with it, hitting record levels and steadily on the rise, American eating habits are under the microscope.  These problems are even more pronounced in our youngest population right now, and across the country government officials, teachers, administrators and parents are all searching for an answer to what is proving to be a very challenging and complex problem.

 

The surprising complexity of the problem.

It seems simple, doesn't it? Provide healthy foods at school and kids will eat better and develop better eating habits for life. That argument seems to make sense, but with pre-prepared convenience foods ubiquitous on the market coupled with the demands and tastes of children who are exposed to these foods regularly, making healthy changes is not always as welcome or easy as many may think. Healthy food options won't work if children won't eat them. Though it may seem easy to argue that the answer is to give no choices, kids can opt out of school lunches and can bring their own junk food to school. Even if they do not, being a teacher or administrator and running a school is challenging enough without the anger and resentment of the student body.

Also, blanket solutions that merely reduce calories won't help everyone. Not all children have weight problems and their bodies are far more varied than those of adults. Schools have age ranges, and thus body development ranges, from six year olds to twelve year olds in many cases, all on the same meal plans. Children have growth spurts and some need more calories at times than others. Some students are very active and may burn many calories during the day through sports and athletic activities. Across the board calorie reduction through smaller meal sizes can create serious issues for these kids. Such problems have popped up in the news recently, as kids take to social media to register their dissatisfaction with small-portioned, unappetizing meals, some blaming Michelle Obama's healthy eating school initiatives.

A difficult change.

Real, meaningful change means work, means overhauling systems, and changing infrastructure. Many public schools struggle financially, so adding needed staff and equipment to prepare freshly made, healthy meals may not be possible. Understaffed inner city school officials must tackle lack of funding, large class sizes, violence in the classroom, lack of books, computers and equipment sufficient to meet the needs of students. Amid such struggles, finding the funding and the time to take on the school lunch problem may necessarily become a lower priority. The only option in such cases may seem to be cutting out popular but unhealthy options (such as the childhood staple of tater tots recently eliminated from many schools) and generally decreasing meal sizes. But the food remains unappealing, and children are not learning to enjoy or value healthy eating as a lifestyle.

Quick and easy solutions won't work.

Is the answer then to eliminate school lunch and breakfast altogether? Some schools have tried this and met with much opposition and anger from both parents and students. Even if the financial situation of families who struggle to put food on the table is taken into account and financial provision is made, for many children suffering from neglect, eliminating food provided at school means hunger. Also, in many cases, even the most conscientious parents would argue that in our busy world, such a change places a serious burden on families, many of whom have two parents working full-time and for whom planning, preparing and packaging daily lunch for their kids adds a stressful element to already stressful lives. In the end, whatever the situation may be, it is likely such drastic measures will lead to serious problems for many children.

Any good chef would argue that healthy food need not be expensive or unappetizing. A dietician can tell you how to eat full, satisfying meals that also are balanced and appropriate in terms of caloric content. So why are the reduced calorie meals being introduced in schools today generating so much upset and why are they so unappealing? Again, it likely comes down to infrastructure. Much of the food prepared in schools is not really made on site. It is pre-made and ordered in bulk from suppliers and merely heated up and assembled at school. To truly overhaul the school cafeteria such that it offered those healthy, tasty, inexpensive, freshly made and satisfying meals, in many cases, would require significant changes such as new equipment, new suppliers, new methods of food preparation, new staff, and more training. It is not an easy fix and not something that can be done quickly or done without some initial investment.

What is the answer?

So is there no solution? One thing we can probably conclude is that, in the case of the school food debate, there is no one size fits all solution. There is probably not a fast, easy and free solution that can be mandated overnight either. Children's needs and situations, like children themselves, are diverse. Perhaps we can begin to address some of these problems by taking the approach of evolution rather than revolution, and looking at multiple options rather than across the board elimination of foods.

The key to answering this question probably doesn't lie as high as the administration of the president of the United States. Though the first lady's goals are noble, community involvement may hold the best hope for finding solutions that fit the unique needs of each school and the children they serve. Slow changes can be incorporated over time in schools to provide the infrastructure to make a real difference. In an ideal world, every school would have trained cooks and all the needed staff, supplies and equipment needed to prepared tasty, fresh and healthy meals offering enough variety to please even picky children.

Of course that can't happen overnight, but those concerned can work with school officials to come up with plans to move in that direction, can make clear the importance and the need to budget for these changes, and can help brainstorm solutions that can improve the food service in the short term as they move toward those long-term goals. Perhaps parents can help source local vendors as options, and suggest easy menu items that would make a difference. Small changes, like introducing a well stocked and diverse salad bar, or having simple but tasty options like fruit salads can happen right away while plans are made for more substantial changes to be introduced over time. Community and parental involvement not only empowers school staff and officials and provides much needed input and ideas about these issues. It also makes clear the desires of the families the schools are serving and the importance of this topic to the community. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as they say, so making this a priority and offering participation is something every parent can do. It is hard to argue that parents and schools won't achieve more working together than working apart.

 

A multipronged approach to meaningful change.

Real change begins at home. It is important not to forget this. While it is perfectly reasonable to hold schools to a standard and to expect that attention be paid to what kids are eating, school alone cannot create a healthy attitude toward food. If children don't learn healthy eating from their families, no school is gong to be able to undo their love of soda, candy and potato chips. Parents and schools need to be on the same page and send the same message. Working together, they can.

Every nutritionist knows that diversity is important in a healthy diet. Chefs know that diversity is critical in meal planning if you want to keep food interesting and attractive. Just as there is no one size fits all solution to the school lunch problem, school provided lunch itself should not be the one size fits all option for kids. Relying on schools to serve lunch is for many parents the only option. But for those who can find time, it is a good idea to mix up a child's diet by sending them to school with a home prepared lunch sometimes. Not only is this something children will likely lovingly remember, it also is the opportunity to speak with the same voice as we expect from schools on the topic of healthy eating by providing a balanced and nutritious home prepared meal. Older kids can be brought into the process too, and can prepare lunch with their parents and discuss the options and why eating well is important. Teens can make their own lunches, guided by parents, and in that way get a head start on taking control of their diets and health which will serve them well in adulthood.

Participation, awareness and unity.

The myriad of problems created by poor nutrition for children didn't pop up overnight. It isn't likely the solution can happen instantly either. Though some may complain about the various changes that have taken place recently and that have gotten so much attention in the news, the motives are undeniably good ones, and it has focused our attention on this problem. When parents and schools work together over time, and include children in the mission, it is possible that real improvements can happen. Participation, awareness, and unity of purpose are the critical elements that could, one day, see children eating healthy at school, at home, and for the rest of their lives.

 

By Louise at Grace


Comments

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By: Anna
On: 05/09/2014 09:44:28
Ha ha ha... ketchup as a vegetable! I forgot about that, but it was a very funny thing back in the 80's. Great article. I think whenever an answer to a long time, difficult problem pops up fast, we should be concerned. Also, it is so easy to complain, but how many people really do get involved on the level the article suggests? A lot of good would likely come from real community involvement. I hope that somehow things can meaningfully and sustainably improve. I know my adulthood would have been easier had I not carried extra weight in childhood and had I learned earlier the importance of not eating junk.
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By: Catherine
On: 05/10/2014 03:08:00
Interesting arguments. But I have to respectfully disagree. I have kids and I do actively participate in the activities and management of their schools. I am also a teacher, so I know both sides. But often there are restrictions to change - or rather requirements to do things a certain way. I am not blaming the school administrators or teachers at all, obviously. But schools have to rely sometimes on federal aid and support, and if the top level of our government is pushing for instant change or extreme change or set forth some guideline that schools are urged to meet, rather than the planned out, well-coordinated change described in the article, then they are very likely going to want to comply and as this story explains. It isn't ideal and schools have a lot of pressures to face. Still it is good the idea is presented, and important to think about it, and talk about it. Anyway, very thought provoking, so thanks for the article.
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By: Jasper
On: 05/11/2014 19:48:25
Very interesting observations and ideas here. It certainly is a charged topic at the moment. I tend to agree with the stance that commands from on high are never the solution to problems like this - problems that vary by community, by population demongraphics, by income areas, etc. Grass roots solutions can really accomplish a lot. Not to politicize the issue, as clearly the article is not doing that, but I do think we as a society have grown overly dependent on government for solutions and that local community action can often be far more effective ( and far more empowering to individuals and serves to unite people in communities) than government action.
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By: John
On: 05/16/2014 07:56:56
Jasper, I totally agree. Yes, this isn't a political article, and did a good job not going down that path in its arguments. I find that happens so often with topics like this. People just use it as a way to bash whatever political party they don't like, and muddle the real situation with such divisiveness and finger pointing. I think the article is totally on target. It isn't stating an easy solution, but a path to a solution, which is time, teamwork, and the productive involvement and participation in looking for solutions by those who are actually effected by the issue. Really, that way of thinking could solve so many things in our world.
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By: Jenny
On: 05/25/2014 17:51:53
I love this article! I have been saying this forever. In my kids' school disctrict there is a serious problem with obesity. My kids don't have that problem, but only because we work hard to make sure they don't. Both my husband and I are not the naturally skinny type and have to be careful and aware. It always frustrates me how hands-off everyone is while they blame everyone and anyone else for the problem. Schools need to be in on the solution, yes, and fattening junk food lunches are not ok, but schools did not create the junk food culture we live in and it isn't a problem of not caring or incompetence on the part of those who run the schools. The article explains it perfectly. We have to get involved and take responsiblity for our part of the problem, and be aware of the culture that lead to it, and work to find solutions that are not so simplistic and one dimensional as the notion that cutting out tater tots at lunch is going to end obesity and create healthy eating habits! Parents need to take part in this more. Both at home and in working with the schools and giving more input that complaints and demands. Our kids future is on the line here, and we have to get actrive in the solution. Thanks so much for this one GC!
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By: Chris Thompson
On: 05/27/2014 18:11:53
I used to hate school lunch. I could never eat it and threw most of it away. From all the news I have read recently, it sounds like little has changed from when I was a kid some 35 years ago. Can't believe tater tots still exist. I agree with the article here that real change is needed and is going to take more than eliminating food, but at least we have really made a start. Ot os hard enough being a kid these days without a hefty helping of pretty gross and fattenning food doled out by your school each day, and kids really can't be expected to direct their health. I hope and wish the advice in this article would happen... and maybe the drastic measures recently, though not an answer themselves, will be enough to light the fire to make those changes actually take place. Agree with another comment that I appreciate the article here expressed an opinion and evaluated the situation without getting political, as that really doesn't help and is too often the case when such topics hit the news.
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By: Anabel Simmons
On: 08/24/2014 14:53:53
I never, ever let my kids eat the school lunch. I am sorry, but I don't buy the excuse that packing a lunch for your younger kids is too much to ask. Ok, maybe for a single working mom, or for super busy families with both parents working - but I think a lot of people could find the time if they wanted to. Plus, as the article points out, older kids can be making their own lunch, which really is the best way to form the responsible attitude needed in maintaining a healthy diet. Therre are so many adults I know that never take care of themsleves in that way. They eat out far too often and rely on preprepared microwave meals. If we get kids active in feeding themselves and deciding their diet early, they are perhaps more likely to make good choices later in life.
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By: Barbara Thorpe
On: 09/11/2014 19:38:37
The argument in this article is perfect and I couldn't agree more. It seems like everyone has an answer and a finger pointed somewhere. I think there are a lot of places to point, and a lot of factors, and aside from maybe eliminating things that are not working, all the finger pointing is stupid and does nothing to help the situation. My kids had a bad weight problem, and we got it under control by changing the eating habbits not just of my kids , but of the whole family and even influenced some of the frineds they saw and their families ( lead by example is my motto!). Plus we did more family activity like playing frisbee outside rather than vegging out in front of the tc. It helped and my kids are doing a lot better - slimmer and feel better and grades improved. I imagine what it would be like if other parents in my neighborhood and in this school system made such an effort, and if the school and parents and comunity all joined the effort. Could be incredible, and change our country. If only collaboration and a steady, reasonable plan as the one described could be possible... Change one mind and one life at a time, I guess. Thanks for this/.. gives me hope.
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By: Greetings from my planet
On: 09/13/2014 23:35:32
School is broken into classes, periods of study. Why not make one of them "cooking time". Then from the first class of the day to the end, you have free labor... the morning kids get the food ready for that lunch day and the afternoon kids make the food for the next day that the morning kids will then heat up and get ready for service. Kids learn a basic skill and learn how to do something usefulthat they can use for their whole lives , and money is saved on labor so you can buy better food. Ah, yes, I am a probelm solver... No need to thank me for the brilliant idea, I am just happy to see my fellow man benefit from my genius.... ha ha ha... I have spoken. MTFBWY and LLAP
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By: M. J. Jacobson
On: 01/21/2015 02:11:03
Im so sick of parents complaining they have no time. It takes no time to make lunch. You have to shop for groceries so just add in the things for lunch. Making a healthy sandwich and throwing it along with an apple and a juice box into a bag takes 5 minutes. If you can't find five minutes for your kids I give up!

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