- Nutrition -

Lunch Break

You thought school lunch was bad when you were a kid? You should see it now.

girl with lunch plate and tray

It’s 10:30 a.m. and children across the country line up for the first lunch shift of the day. It doesn’t matter that they aren’t hungry; space in the basement lunchroom is tight, and staggered eating shifts are required to ensure that every student gets fed. As the line snakes down the hall, a few boys struggle to contain their jumpy energy. They poke their friends in the back, then pull their hands into their pockets as an aide paces toward them. When they get to the food station, they pile their trays with chicken fried steak, French fries and Jell-O; others opt for Belgian waffles and sausage. They grouse that unlike at their older siblings’ schools, the cafeteria doesn’t offer food from Pizza Hut or Taco Bell.

Welcome to the feedlot that is the American school lunch. Twenty-three years after the Reagan administration tried to declare ketchup as a vegetable for school lunches, education budget crunches and the politics of the food industry have successfully turned what should be a nutritious and refreshing midday pause into an unhealthy and emotionally stressful feeding frenzy.

Politics at Play

More than 27 million schoolchildren take part in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which gives schools more than $6 billion each year to offer low-cost meals to students. But while the program can be credited with making sure that children from low-income families do not go hungry, it also subsidizes agribusiness at the expense of good nutrition. Each year under the program, the federal government buys up more than $800 million worth of cheese, whole milk, beef and pork – the very types of heavy, high-saturated-fat foods that contribute to obesity, diabetes and heart disease – and sends them on to schools. Because most schools are under intense pressure to tighten their operating costs, they rely on the program to meet their budgets. An exposé on the topic published in the May 2003 issue of Mother Jones estimated that schools obtain almost 20 percent of their food from the commodities program. As a result, school lunches routinely fail the government’s own nutritional standards.

But it’s not just the high-saturated-fat content that has nutritionists and educators worried. School lunches are also loaded with sugar. Besides the cookies, brownies and Jell-O that are the staples of many cafeteria desserts, many schools serve soft drinks during lunch. Twenty years ago children drank two times more milk than soda. Today that figure is reversed. Researchers at the Children’s Hospital in Boston say that soft drinks constitute the leading source of added sugars in the diet, amounting to 36.2 grams daily for adolescent girls and 57.7 grams for boys.

Students who drink soda during the school day are more prone not only to obesity, but also attention and behavior problems from caffeine surges and sugar crashes. Heavy soda drinkers are also less likely to get the recommended levels of vitamin A and calcium and are at an increased risk of magnesium deficiency.

Even if soft drinks are not offered during lunch, 43 percent of elementary schools and nearly all high schools have machines that sell soda, sugary drinks, candy and chips to hungry kids. And while some states, like Minnesota, have regulations that discourage the sale of soft drinks during lunch period, a survey of 55 Minnesota high schools found that 95 percent of the schools that had vending machines left them functioning during some lunch hours.

The easy answer to this problem would be to just take all vending machines out of the schools. But again, the politics of the food industry make that a very difficult choice for schools. According to Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (University of California Press, 2002), one way that the fiercely competitive soft drink companies have tried to expand their sales bases is by making large payments to school districts in return for the exclusive right to sell their products in every school in the district.

These “pouring rights” have pitted financially strapped administrations against nutritionists across the country. Pouring rights allow schools to fund sports facilities, buy computers, upgrade their furniture and occasionally pay for scholarships. “Given the financial benefits of such contracts,” says Nestle, “it is understandable why many school administrators might resist thinking about, let alone dealing with, the agreements’ ethical implications or health consequences.”

Some schools have decided it’s a tradeoff not worth making. School districts in Maine, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Colorado, Nebraska, Idaho and Texas are phasing out junk food and soft drinks. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) – the second largest school district in the country with 748,000 students – has banned all soft drinks from its 677 schools. Starting in January 2004, the only beverages allowed in schools will be water, milk and beverages that contain at least 50 percent juice and no added sweeteners.

Table Manners

Unfortunately, the problems with food and drink are only the beginning. “We run lunchrooms like a factory,” says Karen Evans Stout, Ph.D., an education professor at Lehigh?University in Pennsylvania. “Lunch has become an experience in social control instead of an opportunity for social learning.” Evans Stout has observed more than 2,000 lunch periods in the United States and Europe. Her findings confirm the view held by a growing number of health experts, school administrators and concerned parents: that school lunch as it exists today is in desperate need of a new lesson plan.

While Evans Stout and other experts are seriously concerned about the quality of the food being served, they also think that the actual lunchroom experience is a large part of the problem. In Evans Stout’s view, it’s impossible to teach children to care about nutrition (not to mention important social skills such as manners and the ability to carry on a conversation) when the lunch period is so dispiritingly institutional. “It’s an issue of ecology,” she says. “If you want to change behavior, you need to change all the factors that contribute to that behavior.”

Compared to the school lunches Evans Stout observed in Switzerland and Austria, which lasted up to 90 minutes, served nutritious food that was prepared on campus, and seated teachers and students family style at cloth-covered tables, the American school lunch is more like a fast-food drive-through.

In some U.S. schools, a lunch period can last as little as 15 minutes, with less than half of those minutes allotted for actual table time. Research by the National Food Service Management Institute shows that children need between seven to 10 minutes just to eat. That doesn’t leave much time for gabbing with friends, another important feature of lunch that Evans Stout says is getting overlooked.

Because space limitations mean that many schools use their auditoriums or gyms as a dining space, most lunches are eaten on long, foldout tables with attached benches. Based on her observations, Evans Stout says that round tables facilitate conversation and positive interaction much better. Not that it would be easy to hear your tablemate’s theories about Harry Potter anyway: There are no tablecloths or curtains to soften the shouts that bounce off the cinderblock walls in U.S. lunchrooms. Lessons on responsibility and tidiness are pretty much limited to watching other kids fast-pitch their trash into industrial garbage cans already stuffed with a landfill’s worth of disposable plates, cups, napkins and cutlery.

Evans Stout worries that in the service of efficiency, American schools are missing out on the learning opportunities that the lunch period can provide. Researchers at Harvard University have shown that engaging in interesting mealtime conversation helps children become better readers. And then there are the lessons that are important to maintaining society. In her study Evans Stout quotes an Austrian teacher at an all-boys school. “No one has big families anymore, so children do not get the experience of learning to give and take or to settle their own arguments,” he says. “Eating family style at a big table is like eating in a big family. If a boy is greedy and takes a lot of a favorite food, then the other boys will quickly teach him that it is not okay. And if there are seconds, then they have to negotiate how to share it.”

Making the Grade

While it’s tempting for parents to rationalize that school lunch accounts for only one meal each day, the truth is that even if your child is eating healthy foods at home, he needs a high quality meal to help him get the most out of school. One school that practices this principle is the Appleton Central Alternative Charter School (ACA), a Wisconsin high school for students whose histories of emotional or behavioral problems have made it difficult to thrive in a traditional school setting.

For years ACA wrestled with truancy, violence and terrible learning retention. The atmosphere was so bad that when, in 1997, Greg Bretthauer was offered the job of dean of students, he turned them down. “The kids were wild and obnoxious and out of control,” he remembers. “I’d already been in the classroom for 20 years and I decided I didn’t need that kind of aggravation.”

In 1998, Barbara Stitt, who owns Natural Ovens Bakery of Manitowoc, Wis., with her husband, Paul, initiated a project to bring healthy food and eating habits into east central Wisconsin schools. A probation officer in the 1970s, Stitt had noticed a link between diet and crime. Out of the conviction that fresh, nutritious food could make a difference in students’ behavior, learning and health, she started a foundation to fund her project. The school she chose to test her theories on was Appleton Central Alternative.

The results were astounding. So astounding that when the dean of students position opened up again in 2000, Bretthauer took the job. What he found amazed him. “The environment was calm,” he says. “The students were actually able to concentrate.”

Today ACA doesn’t allow carry-in food or beverages and has no soda or snack-food vending machines on campus. School breakfast and lunch offerings include flax-based energy drinks, whole grain bagels, breads and muffins, and a salad bar stocked with dark green lettuce, fresh fruits and vegetables, sunflower seeds, hard-boiled eggs and organic croutons. Two on-site cooks prepare the meals daily and no food is ever fried in a grease product. The school serves lean pork, chicken, turkey and fish, but no beef. Because they participate in the NSLP, they are required to offer milk, but that is the only dairy product allowed. ACA qualifies for and receives federal commodities. But unlike most schools, they only select offerings that are nutritious and not heavily processed.

Bretthauer says that, in addition to the more civilized atmosphere, students are learning more, have fewer health complaints and fewer discipline referrals. Truancy is down, moodiness is on the wane, and mid-morning and mid-afternoon hunger pangs are a thing of the past. Students are encouraged to explore the social, cultural and personal influences of their food choices and are taking home what they learn.

The Natural Ovens grant ran out last June, but ACA has contracted with ARAMARK food service, which will hire Natural Ovens staff and use ACA as a testing ground. “We hope to become a model for the nation,” Bretthauer says. Today many of the nutritional policies in place at ACA are being phased into Appleton’s middle and elementary schools as well.

Lunching Off the Land

Another positive alternative on the school lunch menu is the growing popularity of farm-to-school initiatives. Schools across the country are buying fresh fruits and vegetables directly from local farmers and serving them in lunchroom salad bars. According to Anupama Joshi, the program manager of the California Farm-to-School Program at the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College, part of the aim of a farm-to-school program is to help students make the link between the food they eat and the local farmers who produce it. To that end, only seasonal fruits and vegetables are offered.

To qualify as a “holistic” farm-to-school program, the food produce must be procured fresh from local farmers, and students are required to work in a school garden or waste-recycling or worm-composting program. In addition, schools must include a nutrition and agriculture-based curriculum into their lesson plans and provide opportunities for students to visit farms and for farmers to visit classrooms. Joshi says that close to 20 California school districts from across the state meet these specific requirements, while scores of other districts offer one or more components.

The program is, by all accounts, a huge success. Joshi says that food service directors have seen an increase in the number of students wanting the school lunch program in the schools that participate in a farm-to-school project. What’s more, she and her colleagues have found that children consume an average of 4.8 servings of fruits and vegetables in schools that have salad bars versus an average of one serving in schools without them.

Joshi estimates that farm-to-school programs operate in 68 school districts nationwide and serve as many as 500,000 children. Besides California, states with farm-to-school initiatives include Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, Iowa, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Texas, Michigan, Arizona and Illinois are in the process of starting programs.

The trick, of course, is getting changes like these implemented in your school. When asked if parents can make a difference in the quality of their children’s school lunch, Evans Stout points to a 3-inch thick folder of newspaper and magazine clippings about schools across the country that have found creative solutions to the lunch dilemma. “Pushing to change school lunch is not like trying to change the curriculum,” she says. While at first blush such change may seem daunting, Stout insists it can be done. “When parents talk to their children’s schools about what they know and the positive steps they’d like to take to make improvements, it’s hard to argue.” And of course, once you know what your kids are eating at school, it’s a lot easier to put up a good fight.

Elizabeth Larsen is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.

Leave a Comment