The National School Lunch Program
Government funded school lunch programs have long been a controversial topic. To combat the country’s childhood obesity epidemic and allay other potential health concerns, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and First Lady Michelle Obama have instituted sweeping reform over the past few years.
While the National School Lunch Program was established to provide balanced and nutritious meals to students, Education News reports that some schools have found a few of the standards difficult to abide by. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report of their findings after studying the lunch program in eight school districts.
The GAO Report
The GAO Report entitled “School Lunch Modifications Needed To Some Of The New Nutrition Standards” summarized the major concerns of school districts. The GAO interviewed and visited eight districts during the 2012-13 school year and found that school officials were favorable toward providing more healthy lunch options for students, but a few of the standards lack “flexibility.”
Some schools reported the need to get rid of some of the most “popular menu items” due to tight restrictions on meats and grains. These same meat and grain restrictions have forced schools to reduce the sizes of main lunch entrees, in turn, having to increase calories (to meet the minimum standards of 600-700 calories for grade 6-8 and 750 calories for grade 9-12) through unhealthy additions like gelatin and butter.
Another challenge is that calorie requirements differ between grades 6-8 and 9-12, so schools that serve grades 7-12 must come up with two separate lunch menus. Food waste has increased dramatically because students are often reluctant to eat whole grain pasta and bread or more fruits and vegetables. The GAO ultimately believes that students will grow to accept healthier foods over time, as appears to be the case.
School Lunch Reform in Action
Some districts are reporting success with the new standards and have developed healthier menus that both students and parents support. In North Chicago, the Lake Country News-Sun reported that District 187 schools have changed food service vendors in favor of the company OrganicLife LLC.
CEO Justin Rolls is enthusiastic about the reform and stated, “The cafeteria, in our opinion, is the most important classroom. Kids that are getting good, nutritious meals are going to be more productive in the classroom.” The district found that switching to a new vendor did not cost much more and OrganicLife LLC offers appealing food stations with attractive menu items that kids like to eat, including gyros, sushi and fruit salad. Nachos may be out, but four-cheese ravioli and teriyaki chicken are in.
While students are adapting to healthier lunch options and schools are working to determine which menus will work best with their students, the ultimate benefit of healthier lunches is clear: When students are well fed and healthy, they are better prepared for their studies and for life outside the cafeteria—something teachers and administrators alike can support.