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School Lunches Suck: So What Are You Going to Do About It?

School Lunches Suck: So What Are You Going to Do About It?

Looking over the monthly lunch menu from my son’s public school, I quickly realized that nothing much has changed in the few decades since parents and nutritionists alike have sounded the alarm over the pitiful state of school lunches. The menu was rife with spaghetti, chicken fingers, hot dogs, and fried mozzarella sticks. On a handful of days the complex carbohydrate load read like a diet for a 250 lb running back, not a 60 lb child. Sure there are a few obligatory nods to “healthy choices” with apple slices taking the place of carrot cake, and turkey dogs stepping in for “mystery meat” but the food is still largely poor quality and junky. In short, school lunches are a mix of substandard ingredients, prepared with high amounts of sodium, fat, and carbohydrates, and delivered to appeal to the lowest common denominator – kids weaned on fast food.

A lot of media attention has been directed toward the fight to clean up school lunches in this country, with numerous books, blogs, magazine articles, and newspaper reports exposing just how far we have fallen from providing good nutrition to young children. British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver even made it his reason for being with his widely watched reality show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, which tried to foster change in both semi-rural Virginia and urban Los Angeles, with varying success. But short of having Jamie Oliver bust into your local school like a superhero and change the system it is up to parents to promote change, or just dutifully pack their child a lunch everyday (like me) and hope he/she never has to eat the cafeteria food.

The problem seems to be so systemic that it is easy for a parent (not to mention a child) to feel relatively powerless, as well as hopeless, when it comes to making a change. The fact is, in communities all over the country, parents and parent groups have cultivated change when it comes to moderately to greatly improving the quality of food offerings in their local public school system. The stories range from the somewhat small (like getting candy and soda out of the cafeteria) to the exceptional (like completely revamping the menu with locally grown produce). But regardless of the scope of changes, you have to start somewhere and each community is different (some more prone to change than others).

Here are a few vital resources to arm yourself with if you are looking to change the world, or at least lunch:

Rethinking School Lunch Guide

Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health by Amy Kalafa

Food Corps

Free For All: Fixing School Food in America by Janet Poppendieck

This will just get you started, and to be sure, there are probably other individuals or local groups in your area that have already started the good fight. Have you encountered the problem of substandard school food head on? If so, how have you chosen to fight this battle and have you seen any results?

Read more: Children, Eating for Health, Family, Food, Healthy Schools, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

68 comments

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7:24AM PDT on Nov 5, 2011

thankyou for the post!

11:45PM PDT on Sep 30, 2011

School lunches don't suck where MY son goes to school... He attends online in the comforts of home. I feed him a home made lunch that is healthy. Yesterday, my son's lunch was a charbroiled cheeseburger on a whole wheat bun, 2 servings of fresh broccoli, and a cherry/oatmeal dessert, plus 8 oz of 1% milk. Today it was home made chili with ibanitza on the side with milk. It's so much better that I make the food, because for his health, I know my food is much tastier as well as more nutritious than the school swill.

8:20PM PDT on Sep 23, 2011

I agree school lunches are gross! and they need vegan/vegetarian options as well and the food they serve needs to get a makeover or ditch them.

1:57AM PDT on Sep 21, 2011

thanks for sharing

6:08AM PDT on Sep 20, 2011

What scares me is that some schools are banning home-made lunches (due to allergies of some students) altogether!

12:22AM PDT on Sep 20, 2011

Thanks for the post.

12:08AM PDT on Sep 20, 2011

Well I am really thankful my mother was at home for lunch and we had a good meal. I was home for my children as well.

11:55PM PDT on Sep 19, 2011

Get your own food, or even buy healthy meals if you can. I do that, and though I might look quite silly to my uni counterparts with my home made snacks and whatnot, it feels a lot better eating something you know is clean and good than eating something wicked and waiting for the explosive diarrhea to begin :/

11:53PM PDT on Sep 19, 2011

I have gone to plenty of ReThinking events with slow food activists, and having a class lesson (or two!) dedicated to educating children about sustenance is a great start.

10:11PM PDT on Sep 19, 2011

Watched Jamie Oliver's TV series on Food Revolution. He is brave and I hope the institution does the right thing by providing healthy food to the children. This should be national issue and be nationally enforced in order to reduce health problems and child obesity.

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