Friday, May 10, 2013

The State of School Lunches

You know what I don't understand? School lunches. I mean, I understand the main concept, obviously: Schools sell lunches to kids that don't have time to make one for themselves, or prefer not to, or have forgotten theirs at home, or whatever. That way, the walls of those kids' stomachs won't be collapsing on top of each other by the time their last period is over. That makes sense to me. But what's been bugging me is what's being served up for lunch at school lately. And by lately, I mean just this year. Cafeteria food has been changing nationwide because of the new nutritional school lunch regulations unveiled by the USDA just last year in January. The new guidelines can be summarized in these few points:
  • Offer fruits and vegetables as two separate meal components
  • Offer fruit daily at breakfast and lunch
  • Offer vegetables daily at lunch, and a limited quantity of starchy vegetables throughout the week
  • Offer whole grains
  • Offer a daily meat/meat alternate at breakfast
  • Offer fluid milk that is fat-free(unflavored and flavored) and low-fat(unflavored only)
  • Offer meals that meet specific calorie ranges for each age/grade group;
  • Reduce the sodium content of meals
  • Prepare meals using food products or ingredients that contain zero grams of trans fat per serving
  • Require students to select a fruit or a vegetable as part of the reimbursable meal

Now, these are all really great ideas. Whole grains? Awesome! Fruit and vegetables? Fantastic! Fat-free and lowfat milk only? Spectacular! So what could possibly be the problem?
The problem, dear readers, is this:

This slice of pathetic pizza is one my friend had purchased from the school cafeteria this year. Last year, the pizza slices we bought were from the same company, but were worlds different. The old slices were more than twice as big and covered in cheese. But look at them now! They're practically the size of my hand, and only have the occasional blotch of cheese. It's terrible! I can't believe they're calling this a lunch!
And I suppose you're saying, "But isn't that the point, Ri? The slices kids were served last year were just too large; too high in calories- They had to reduce the size in order for the pizza to fit the nutritional guidelines."
And yes, this is true. However! Think of a slice of chocolate cake, for a second: Low in protein, low in fiber, low in vitamins, high in calories. Now, imagine some guys standing around this cake and one says, "How can we make this healthier?" So another grabs a knife and slices the cake in half. There, low in calories. Problem solved, right? Its healthy now, right? Hardly.
That slice of cake may now be "half the calories", but now its also half the amount of protein, half the amount of fiber, and half the amount of vitamins. And considering that cake had barely any of these in the first place! That slice of cake is still nutritonally-deprived in every sort of way. Kids need plenty of protein and fiber to grow up healthily and properly. Plus, let's not forget that slice is now half its original size! Hardly what I call "satisfying." With the combination of a small serving size and no belly-filling protein or fiber, kids' stomachs will be rumbling for more food in one or two hours- tops!
The school pizza is no different than the cake in the story. And I suppose some of the other options offered for lunch are better, but not by much. Breaded chicken sandwiches, cheesy garlic bread, nachos, cheeseburgers, cheese-filled breadsticks... The list goes on and on! And none of these are all that big, really. Sure, there are those fruits and vegetables for sides, but no one honestly takes those because they want to. Most kids just end up grabbing a bag of chips or a package of Pop-Tarts. Why bother trying to get kids to healthily when you just end up letting them purchase junk food anyway? If you're going to offer fruits and vegetables, offer fruits and vegetables ONLY. Because 99% of kids would rather have the sugary, salty, high calorie stuff.
And what's up with the tater tots as an option then? Sure, there are only eight to a container (There we go with the reduction of calories reducing nutrients and size...), but students are learning. They just grab two orders of tater tots and put them together. Now, why would they do that? Hmm... I don't know... BECAUSE THEY'RE HUNGRY???
In fact, even the fruits and vegetable trays are small! And they're fricken fruits and vegetables, for crying out loud! I thought about purchasing one ONCE, but when I grabbed a vegetable tray, there were like, four, tiny baby carrots, a couple slice of cucumbers, and one broccoli floret. Not even fit for topping a salad! (Oh, the salads are pretty small too. Except for ones like the Caesar, which bury the lettuce in cheese, deli meats, and hard-boiled egg yolks.)
And I don't know much about the breakfast menu, since I never get breakfast at school, but from what I've seen, it needs adjusting as well. They mostly offer baked goods in tiny square trays, honey buns, breakfast bars, and cereal. And not even healthy cereal. It's like, Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I don't know- Some days, they might offer breakfast wraps and omelettes and stuff, but not everyday, I can assure you of that! But cereal and baked goods are no way to start your day off! Those are nothing but carbs, and not the good, fiberous kinds. Those foods'll make you hungry before lunchtime is even close! Kids need protein to kick off their metabolism: Eggs, ham, greek yogurt, bacon, turkey sausage, cheese! That's what will keep them full and focused. None of this sugary, carby crud.
So, to sum it all up, I like that we as a country are trying to get our kids in school to eat healthier. It's nice we're making the effort to change. But the system... she still needs a little tweaking. Growing boys and girls need high-protein, nutrient-dense foods. We need to see more options that offer this in school lunches. We need less of these nutritient-deprived, starchy foods. Making sure kids get an adequate amount of vitamins should be the top priority, with calories coming in second.
And why keep the fatty deep-dish pizza with sausage and pepperoni if we're going to change? The only thing they're doing to it is making it so teeny-tiny that it can stay on the menu. I propose changing the pizza altogether. Offer thin crust pizza slices, and top them with fat-free or reduced-fat cheeses, and use lean meats like Canadian bacon and grilled chicken. Heck, they even have turkey sausage and turkey pepperoni now! The kids will never know the difference! A thinner crust will provide a bigger surface area for which to cover the pizza with healthy toppings. Smaller portions is NOT the answer here, people; Bigger portions of lower-calorie, nutrition-packed food IS.
I mean, certainly there are ways to give kids satisying portions without stepping over the calorie borderlines, isn't there? I mean, what's the limit here? 500? Okay, you could offer a meal of a plain grilled chicken sandwich, which is like 250. Then, how about an ounce of baked chips? Now we're at 370. A fistful of baby carrots? 405. A sugar-free, fat-free pudding cup too? 465. Maybe top your chicken sandwich with some fat-free mayonnaise, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, and you'll be right around 500. I think that sounds like a decent-sized meal, no?
Also, trash the chips and Pop-Tarts already. Well, we can keep the baked chips, but not the standard, oily ones, you know? Just because you set out fruits and vegetables doesn't mean students will magically flock to them like a moths to a flame. You either need to have healthier alternatives to the chips and pastries you're handing out now, or make fresh fruits and vegetables the ONLY options. And these days, there are soooo many low-calorie, healthy alternatives to chips and Pop-Tarts. There are Soy Crisps from Glenny, and 100-calorie Pastry Crisps from Special K, to name a couple. But then, of course, these products are more expensive than regular fare. It really is quite the conundrum.
And Mama also brought up a really good point: She said that if schools offered healthy options ONLY, people would complain because they would feel that schools would be taking away our individuliaty and freedom to eat what we want. Well then, if people want junk food, then THEY can provide it for themselves. You get what you get, and you don't through a fit. If you don't like the healthy options at school, then bring your own food.
I hope I'm making some sense here. Really, I just want schools to be able to provide their students with lunches that are healthy and nutritious, but at the same time won't leave them feeling utterly deprived. Is that so impossible? Really, we're striving for change here, and that's great. I love to see that. But we need to realize their are other choices than deep-dish pizza. Forget trying to modify our preexisting foods. We need to start fresh- from the beginning! I think then we'll truly see how many options are out there for keeping our kids well-nourished, full of protein and fiber, and at a healthy weight.

What do you guys think? How do you feel about the new school lunch guidelines? What can we do to improve them, or are they fine as is? Leave your opinions down below!
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