The concept of a school feeding program has existed for over 100 years in America. It began in Philadelphia with a single school in 1894. By the late 1930s, 15 states had instituted legislation authorizing school lunch programs. Most of them provided the meals at cost, while a few provided low or no cost food to needy children. National support for a permanent school feeding program came in 1946 when President Truman signed into law the National School Lunch Act. The act created the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which still regulates and oversees the familiar school lunch program in effect today. Significant changes to the program have occurred throughout the years, with the last major round of revisions taking place from 1994 through 1996.
Despite the efforts of legislators and school officials, the NSLP has been accused of short-changing the children of this country nutritionally in order to save money and support federally subsidized cash crops like corn. The NSLP is required to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), which is published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The USDA issued the latest DGA on January 31st, 2011. It contained a number of statements reflecting what, for a government agency at least, constitutes progressive thinking. “Groundbreaking” firsts for this year’s release included a focus on whole grain products and a general recommendation to eat less and use smaller portion sizes. Amazing, I know.
The guidelines from the DGA that apply to school lunch programs are pretty limited. NSLP is required to provide no more than 30% of calories by way of fat and no more than 10% of calories from saturated fat. In addition, the school lunch must contain 1/3 of the daily value (DV) for protein, calories, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. While those requirements generally sound positive, there is a lot of room to maneuver in bad directions in the name of short term cost-savings and convenience.
For example, the government’s recommended level of protein consumption comprises only 10% of the overall diet’s calories. It is apparent, therefore, that the majority of school lunch food will be high in carbohydrates.
The DGA also suggests that half of all grain foods be “whole grain.” As you may know, the nutritional difference between whole and refined grains is enormous. While half is good, therefore, more would be better. In addition, the whole-grain suggestion says nothing about the relatively low nutrient density, non-grain vegetables that are the stalwarts of school lunches. The most popular of these offenders is the potato. With some schools literally celebrating “Tater Tot Day,” it doesn’t look good for student nutrition any time soon.
School lunches are operated at the top by the NSLP. The NSLP’s nutritional guidelines are set by the USDA’s DGA (enough acronyms yet?). So, in the end the sad state of school lunches can’t be blamed entirely on the NSLP.
The root of the problem is that the USDA is using 20 year-old dietary recommendations. The agency needs to get with the times and to promote lower glycemic index foods, with more protein and fiber.
Funding for school lunches needs to be a higher priority, too. If we are to feed our kids properly, we’re going to have to pay for the effort. I don’t care whether the money comes from taxes or from a reallocation of funds now spent wastefully (and there’s plenty of that around).
If we want to compete globally then our kids must learn efficiently, and that requires proper fueling every day. Let’s not short-change our future.
With the current school lunch program as unfit as the average American, the best option is to feed your child from your own cupboard. Yet, a parent faces many of the same concerns as the government when deciding what to pack. How do you strike the best balance between convenience, acceptance, nutrition and cost?
The answer is: carefully. On one hand, your child’s tastes and preferences must be taken into account, or they’ll just trade your carrot sticks for honey buns. On the other hand, the kids can’t make all of the decisions: school lunches will consist of fruit rollups and Twinkies! Find a reasoned middle ground.
As with any meal planning exercise, a school lunch should focus on the fundamentals: a base of protein and fiber with some fruits and vegetables to round it out. So what does that look like in practice? A sliced chicken or turkey sandwich on 100% whole wheat bread is always a good start. You can also send some more “entrée-like” dishes in Tupperware containers, like chicken with rice and beans or lean beef with whole wheat pasta and low fat sauce. Tofu also can work well as a protein source for school lunches, but remember that tofu often has a very high moisture content and can waterlog anything around it between the hours your child leaves the house and their lunch period. If you’re including tofu in a child’s lunch, therefore, make sure to prepare and package it in a way where it remains appetizing and doesn’t interfere with other lunch ingredients.
After you’ve sorted out a significant portion of protein, add in a fruit and some colorful, crunchy vegetables. Stick with high nutrient-density fruits, like berries, bananas, and tropical fruits. For vegetables, it is often best to pack them raw. They retain some nice texture and have a fresher flavor than processed veggies. Remember, the goal is for the food to end up in your kid’s stomach, not the lunchroom trash can. If they really don’t like something, then work with them. This issue can’t be forced because kids are essentially on their own at school.
The school lunch program is a valuable part of our education system. But it still has a long way to go before it will maximize the potential of students in this country. Budget shortfalls and the demands of “convenience” have engendered some truly unhealthy school lunch products. Until the NSLP comes around, the best option is to feed your child with a home-packed lunch.
As with any other meal, a school lunch should be based on proper nutritional fundamentals and must also take into account your child’s particular preferences. After all, it’s not going to do them any good if they don’t eat it. Excellent nutrition is imperative to the education process. Give your child the best chance at success with the right meals and snacks before, during and after school.