Not your mama’s lunch lady

I mentioned in this post that I took the boys to an open house put on by the nutrition services department in my school district. That was last week. By now I’ve had some time to digest (pun intended) what I learned there, and feel like sharing a recap. I hope you feel like reading!

As you may know, school lunches have become a touchy subject in the last few years, as everyone from parent groups to the federal government to Jamie Oliver have pushed for an overhaul. Considering more than 32 million students eat school-supplied meals, and many of them get more than half their daily caloric intake from school meals, small changes have the potential to make a big impact.

Starting this fall, schools will have to include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, per new federal regulations announced last week. The first major changes to school food in 15 years also dictate reduced salt, fat and fried foods, and set a calorie maximum per meal. Most of the changes will take effect in the 2012-2013 school year, though some, such as lower sodium, will be phased in over the next few years.

Additional guidelines include:

  • only 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice, which can only count for up to half of the fruit and vegetable requirements
  • tomato paste, such as in pizza sauce, will count as a vegetable
  • only low-fat and non-fat milk
  • baked potato products are allowed

The thing is, though, no matter how healthy the meal, if kids won’t eat it, it doesn’t matter. Obviously parents are the biggest advocates of healthy eating. By serving nutritious meals at home, and involving your kids in meal shopping and prep, you can influence eating habits over time. Is it always easy? Nope. You might have to send your kid to bed with a grumbly tummy a few times. Be prepared to have your cooking criticized. Don’t take it personally, and don’t give in and make something else just for your picky eater. Expect more of your kids. They can handle it.

But now I’m getting off track. Like I said, as a parent, you do the heavy work of teaching your kids to eat healthy food. But as Michele Obama said, “Parents have a right to expect that their efforts at home won’t be undone each day in the school cafeteria or in the vending machine in the hallway. …Parents have a right to expect that their kids will be served fresh, healthy food that meets high nutritional standards.”

Our school district administers the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program that’s been around since 1946, and operates in over 101,000 public and non-profit private schools. Based on the open house I went to, my district is trying to get it right. Some of the highlights, in my own words:

  • whole wheat pizza with roasted veggies and a balsamic drizzle
  • roasted veggie whole wheat flatbread sandwiches
  • chicken (puree?) hotdogs colored with cherry juice (this was pretty darn good, actually)
  • vegetarian pasta casserole
  • chicken teriyaki with brown rice

This photo also shows a pre-makeover hamburger and a post-makeover hamburger made with leaner meat. Kind of gross on both counts.

The pizza was a hit with me and the boys. It was really good.

Here’s a photo of one of the harvest bars that are currently in, or are coming to schools in our district. It’s filled with fresh veggies and fruit. I tried to get more information about these, but haven’t gotten a response, however, I believe they are part of a grant the district received.

Finally, one effort I really applaud is the move to make existing recipes simpler, with less additives and junk. For example, our district previously used a commercial pasta sauce with high fructose corn syrup. Now, they are making their own sauce with only natural ingredients and no high fructose corn syrup. Sugar is number six on the ingredient list. Not bad.

Overall, I was impressed at the effort. The food was good, and not such a major departure that kids will rebel. More like upgraded versions of traditional meals. Still, when I checked the lunch menu for February, I was a little underwhelemed. Yes, the veggie pizza is available, but cheese and pepperoni is still an option. What kid is going to choose the veggie over the pepperoni? And if  kids can choose between a cheese omelet with french toast slices, OR chicken nuggets, are they really going to save room for the carrot and celery sticks, and diced pear offered on the side? I think the fruit and veggies are going right in the trash.

It sounds good to include healthy options on the menu, but again, if the kids don’t choose them . . .

I don’t know the answer. I don’t think anyone does. Change takes time, and it’s often difficult and uncomfortable. I challenge you to get involved. Continue to educate yourself and you kids. Push some buttons.

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6 thoughts on “Not your mama’s lunch lady

  1. Elizabeth says:

    What a neat opportunity to be able to sample items and see the changes they are making. As a former teacher, I observed that most of our school lunches would get thrown away. The amount of waste was just as appalling to me as the food situation. It really is an important issue and one that many teachers as well as parents are frustrated by.

    • wishfit says:

      I’m just starting to get involved in whole school lunch topic, which is convoluted and scary enough! My brain struggles enough with what food kids aren’t even considering, let alone the stuff they take and then throw away. Or the stuff that sits there waiting to be eaten, and then gets thrown away. Baby steps, baby steps. But thanks for making an important point.

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