The Truth About Healthy School Lunch

It is clear that our children need a radical change in their diets, and that change begins at home. But if we're serious about creating a truly lasting impact, we need to worry about what they are eating at school as well.
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You see vending machines filled with junk food at your child's school and you try not to hyperventilate. Then, the school serves french fries and touts it as a "vegetable" and now you know -- you've got a problem.

Most of us have read the devastating news that childhood diabetes and obesity are occurring in epidemic proportions in the United States. According to the CDC, type 2 diabetes (formerly known as adult-onset diabetes) has been reported among U.S. children with increasing frequency over the last two decades. Obesity rates in children are just as alarming, having more than tripled in the past 30 years.

It is clear that our children need a radical change in their diets, and that change begins at home. But if we're serious about creating a truly lasting impact, we need to worry about what they are eating at school as well. This is obviously a steep uphill battle: School systems around the country suffer from a serious lack of funding. Many have become so desperate that they have even turned to junk food advertising and sponsorships to make up for the lack of funds.

So how do we make inroads in our schools? How do we protect our kids? I asked my friend and activist, Colleen Kavanagh, executive director of Campaign for Better Nutrition, for her insight on the subject.

Q: For any parent interested in improving their child's cafeteria lunch, how can they get started, and are there organizations to help them begin this potentially uphill battle?

A: Starting is easy. It takes less than an hour of research:

1. Find out what is already going on. Your district is required by federal law to have a Wellness Policy and a permanent committee that oversees it. Go to your district website, read the policy, put the next meeting on your calendar. While you are on the website, go to the section on school nutrition and find out what they are serving.

2. Brush up on how the school lunch program operates. Just Google the USDA fact sheet on the National School Lunch Program.

3. Email your district PTA/PA to find out what they are doing on school food or if they know of any other parents who are working on it. Put it in your calendar to email those parents to set a coffee date.

4. Start a positive relationship with your food service director; he or she is a key ally. If you don't have support here, all your work will be much harder. Also find allies on the school board -- look up the biographies of your board members and determine who might be a likely champion for improving school food. Send the food service director and board members an email letting them know how important you think the school lunch program is for your child/children.

5. Go to and watch their video and access the resources they have compiled in their "Get Started" guide.

Remember that every district is different, so what worked for "two angry moms" or in Berkeley with Alice Waters might not work for your district. After doing your initial hour, spend some time with your new contacts finding out the unique character of your district's food -- how much money do they have, do all the schools have cooking capability, are the staff qualified to cook, etc. Be open-minded, there are many ways to improve school food. If your district has no school kitchens or staff that can cook, starting with a goal of cooking from scratch at each school site might be unrealistic. In that case, you might want to find a better vendor, have higher quality or more variety of produce, offer more entree choices, etc.

Q: School lunches are based on federal nutrition standards and are based in science. When were the federal standards last updated? And according to these standards what does a "nutritious" lunch look like?

A: The standards haven't been meaningfully updated since 1995 when -- and don't cringe -- they were changed to reflect the misfound notion that excess fat consumption was giving us heart disease and making us obese. Carbohydrates were given a larger focus on the plate based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Kids have been getting fatter ever since, not all caused by the school lunch program, but certainly the program has contributed to the problem.

Updated standards were required in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. That bill contained a lot of the recommendations by Michelle Obama's Obesity Task Force, but the new standards were developed by the Institute of Medicine for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, which oversees the school nutrition programs. Basically, they call for more produce, at least half of all grains being whole grains, less sugar, less salt and drinking water instead of sugary drinks. A great disappointment is that they still recommend a low-fat diet despite the mounds of evidence we have that this is not good advice, and they do not responsibly distinguish between good and bad fats. They also continue to confuse the issue of foods that contain cholesterol, such as eggs, animal fat, etc., and foods that promote unhealthy cholesterol ratios, which are refined carbohydrates.

So, although the new guidelines are better, they still operate like a living science experiment based on faulty data inputs. The problem is that the experiment has over 30 million participants, so the damage this bad advice could cause is magnified. I hope we don't have to wait another 17 years before the next update, which will hopefully catch up to the real science instead of the popular science. If you want to know where we should be headed next, check out the Harvard School of Public Health Food Guide Plate. Though Harvard is still having trouble giving up the low-fat message, their guide is better than the federal one.

Q: Do you believe that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will be able to accomplish its goal of combatting obesity and hunger?

A: This problem has taken decades to build. We can reverse in a shorter time frame, but not by 2015. The important contribution of Mrs. Obama is the multi-pronged, incredibly inventive steps she has made toward achieving this goal. No administration has ever used the power of the White House to forge agreements with grocers to provide healthier food on their shelves. Other massive federal agencies like the Forest Service and General Services Administration are improving their nutrition guidelines as well. On the private sector side, I just heard that Dr. Alan Greene may have convinced the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend parents never feed infants powdered white rice cereal. All of these measures and so many more are coming together to promote health. We will reach a tipping point, but I guarantee that it won't happen until the soda companies start showing rapid declines in sales.

For more great tips on improving your school's food offerings, check out these helpful resources:,, and .

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