The Problem With Today’s School Lunches

I can’t imagine what would have happened in my high school if the kids had protested the lunch menu. We probably would have been given detention. Maybe even suspended.

But not any more. Encouraged by social media, kids are making videos about their inability to survive on the new leaner menus, aided and abetted by faculty members, no less.

The start of this school year brought protests over the federally subsidized school lunch program in some parts of the country, meals students described as lacking appeal, as well as adequate protein and carbohydrates.

A video featuring teenagers at one high school went viral last month. According to the news, the kids got help producing the video from their English teacher. The woman said their dilemma inspired her to rewrite the lyrics of a pop song to illustrate their cause. The video showed kids “fainting” in the gym and hall as they lip-synched to the music, unable to function, ostensibly due to hunger.

Let ’em all go to India and beg for their lunch in the streets. They’ll come home and eat every morsel the cafeteria lady puts on their tray.

But wait. What if they’re right? At least partially, anyway.

Not that I would go back to the days when ketchup was considered a vegetable, but here’s my take on the problem: Our kids are addicted to junk. The insides of the lockers shown on the news looked like the 7-11. If parents cooked for their kids, the way they used to, gave them a solid breakfast instead of Froot Loops, and raised them on reasonable portions, they’d be used to eating real food and we wouldn’t have the childhood obesity problem we have today.

In order to get eaten, healthy foods need to smell good, taste good, and look good. From what I saw, the food on these kids’ trays looked lean and MEAN – not tasty and filling. It sure wasn’t prepared the way I would do it if I wanted my kids to dig in.

The problem is, kids aren’t used to eating regular meals anymore. They’re used to fast foods. The meals our lipsticked lunch ladies served looked like what we ate at home. If they served it today, kids raised on chicken nuggets might say, “What the heck is that?”

They gave us no choices in elementary school, but we were happy. You either brought your lunch from home and got in the milk line, or bought hot lunch. One or the other. I don’t even remember chocolate milk. Our trays had meat – fish on Friday – a starch and a vegetable. Sometimes we had spaghetti or mac and cheese – and salad or veggies. We always had fruit slices or a cookie for dessert, and the smells wafting through the hall made my stomach growl.

Our options in junior high were just about as limited. Not until high school did we have a choice of a fruit plate, salad plate, or egg salad or tuna on hard roll – in addition to the main entree. We had no chips and salsa. No pizza. No salad bar. The only Coke machine was in the teachers’ lounge. And we didn’t care!

I don’t remember throwing any food away because I was always starving. And we were a lean bunch. I can honestly say there were only a few overweight kids in my entire school.

For today’s children, especially those who come to school without breakfast, I’d shift some of the required fruit servings to morning. Right, their parents should step up to the plate and feed them at home, but I don’t care. Their parents don’t have to sit in class all day and try to learn. Kids who come to school without breakfast get off to a terrible start. They can’t concentrate. I’d serve them protein for a mid-morning snack, the way they do in Scandinavia.

For elementary kids, I’d have only one main lunch entree. And I wouldn’t let them grab serving utensils with hands given only a cursory squirt of sanitizer before leaving the classroom. My lunch menus would include beef stew with tiny chunks of yellow squash and carrots, low-fat enchiladas, beans and rice, chicken stir fry, spinach lasagna, and turkey pie. And every dish would have to pass the taste test.  On Fridays, I’d let them have pizza with grilled veggies and turkey sausage. For kids who don’t like what’s on the menu, I’d always have a choice of homemade soup and salad or bean burritos. But every meal would have plenty of vegetables in my cafeteria line, whether steamed, raw or baked.

They’d also get a low-fat dessert. Kids need dessert – just a small one. I’d have yogurt, carrot cake or a raisin cookie.

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That being said, the federal government subsidizes school lunches. It’s the taxpayer’s money. And I would rather my money go for healthy foods than high or empty calories. A group of retired military leaders called Mission: Readiness reports that one in four adolescents is overweight, presenting a threat to our national security. Overweight kids can’t qualify for military service.

In trying to conquer the childhood obesity epidemic, the school lunch program has maybe gone off the deep end in the name of nutrition. School lunches can’t be everything to everybody; parents need to kick their kids off the computer and make them play outside.

What the modern menu lacks is heart, the taste of old-fashioned home cooking with a more nutritious twist. Floppy little carrot sticks and chicken quesadillas are nice, but to nurture kids’ growing bodies and souls, they need the warmth of whole foods, the melding of delicious flavors into a small daily feast. If they don’t eat that way at home, all the more reason to give it to them at school, sitting down at a table and served, of course, by smiling cafeteria ladies.

No one is forcing kids to eat hot lunch. But schools need to see it as an opportunity to do more than keep kids fit. It’s a way to teach them that healthy food tastes good, and that someone cared enough to make it for them. FFG

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