School Lunches

In 2012, in response to the epidemic of childhood obesity,  the USDA imposed maximum limits of caloric intake from meats and grains in school lunches, intending to promote a more balanced and nutritious diet, and specifically more vegetables in the meals. Nearly 32 million children get lunches through the national school lunch program.   As of 2005 (the latest year for which I’ve seen data) 60% of the funding for the school lunch program was spent on meat and less than 5% was spent on fruits and veggies.

Obesity rates among children have doubled in the last 10 years, and have tripled for adolescents.  Approximately a third of all children in the U.S. are now overweight or obese.  The future health consequences of this are staggering.

Nevertheless, the USDA’s move was controversial and many schools complained that it was difficult to implement.  The USDA reimburses schools $2.72 for every free lunch, but after overhead and labor that leaves only about $1 for the actual meal itself. Many complained that suppliers couldn’t provide quantities and portion sizes to work within those parameters and that the one-size-fits-all rule was leaving some kids hungry.  In Congress there was a push to abolish the rule, led by members from the grain and meat-producing states.

In response to the pressure and criticism, last year the USDA temporarily suspended the rule. On January 4 they made that suspension permanent.  Henceforth there is no longer any maximum limit on the amount of meat and bread that can be served in the lunches.

While some within the food movement have attributed the USDA’s change of position to caving in to political pressure from industrial agriculture, it seems that there was plenty of opposition from those charged with implementing the policy too.  No doubt Big Ag’s congressfolks pushed for repeal, but there weren’t many defenders of the policy either.  Giving the actual menu-planners some flexibility seems sensible, but if they feed children diets of corn dogs and pizza, then our tax dollars are not being well-spent and our children are not being well-served.  It’s far more common these days for kids to have nutritional deficiencies arising from diets with too many calories, than from diets with too few.

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4 comments on “School Lunches

  1. Bill, government provided school lunches is a subject that I have a difficult time addressing. I have a grandson that lives with me and goes to 3rd grade just down the street and eats a school lunch every day. I can truthfully say that it’s hard to provide a healthy lunch that kids with eat. Kids of today are so well fed that they have become picky eaters. I’ve eaten lunch with Bradley at school on “parents eat lunch with kids day” and see just how the kids eat. I have no official facts other than observation of one school but I do know that a large portion of the provided “healthy” food gets pitched into the garbage can on the way out the door. There are so much sugary delights that reside in the homes that lunch can be skipped at school knowing that the evening meal will be more to their liking. I can always tell when my grandson didn’t like the school lunch because he comes home ready to eat everything in sight. I try to keep what I feed him mostly healthy with vegetables, fruits, and as much unprocessed meat as I can. Yes, it takes more time to cook and clean up but hopefully, it will instill a eating life style that will follow him through life. I don’t know what the answer is for child obesity but I don’t think that it relies on schools lunches too much.

    Have a great healthy lunch today.

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    • Bill says:

      That’s a great point Dave. The healthy lunches do no good if the kids won’t eat them. And sadly lots of kids don’t have a good meal waiting for them when they get home. For lots of kids in our nearby city the meal they get at school may be the only meal they get (or at least the only one with any nutritional value).

      It’s a tough situation, but unless we find a way to instill healthy eating habits in children we’re looking at a very unhealthy future. I agree that we can’t rely on schools to do that, but it doesn’t help if schools have soda and candy machines on the property.

      I know how hard it can be to get kids to eat well. Our son was particularly stubborn about it. I don’t know what the answer is. It seems pretty clear that the USDA rule wasn’t it.

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  2. I recall reading a few articles in the past that schools that have vegetable gardens that the children participate in have greater success in getting them to like eating healthy food. Having them assist in preparation of meals at home can help as well. Hands on experience and knowledge have always helped me.

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