The question has been asked time and time again: “What is the cafeteria feeding my children?” You and probably many other parents have had that thought cross your minds more than once. Your child comes home and complains about the “brown stuff” that was flung down on their plate and passed as a healthy meal. They may feel tired or have less energy when they get home. It makes you wonder why other countries do not have such a huge obesity problem and how their lunches differ from ours. The lunch laws have become better over time, but there is still no real solution to high-calorie and high-fat content lunches in the United States. Strides have been made by a few schools to provide healthier and fresher lunches, but it is not enough for only a handful of schools to be doing this. How can we make school lunches better and where did the American lunch go wrong?
No one is blind to the fact that children have become increasingly overweight and unhealthy. About one in three children in the United States are overweight or obese. This makes them lethargic and puts them at risk for a number of diseases in the future. The obesity rate in children has almost tripled since 1963. Only 2% of children are eating a completely healthy diet. They consume nearly half of their daily calories at school and this is a startling problem that has come up recently with the USDA. The First Lady and President Obama signed off on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This Act has made major changes in school meals, which promotes healthier students and a healthier generation. The new standards will be cohesive with the latest nutrition science. Meals now have to be lower in fat, calories and sodium. The meals are also required to have more fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, it seems that the lunches have not really been revamped as much as they have just been slightly modified. In order to meet the standards they don’t really have to change the food, rather make a component of it have fewer calories or less fat.
The United States school lunches and its huge problem with obesity go hand in hand. France, for example, has the lowest rate of childhood obesity, but their lunches would not technically pass our nutritional standards. This is because although they may have a higher calorie count they choose foods that are overall healthier and have more nutritional value to provide children with more energy throughout the day. Other European countries also have more effective lunch foods on their plates. It is all about quality, something American lunches tend to lack. The way the food is prepared plays a part in the nutritional value of the meal. Another key difference is portion size. The portion sizes in the United States are much greater than that of any other country. We are known for eating big, and children have been susceptible to this. This is because children are prone to binge on food rather than eat in moderation. Having no idea about the different types of fats or caloric content can have serious negative effects on what children think is okay to eat.
Education about healthy eating is key. We must work harder and smarter to get kids information on how to eat properly. Lunches served around the world, particularly in Europe include a more balanced diet. Snacks do not consist of salty items or sweets but rather dried fruit or chopped vegetables. Milk is another big difference. In the United States a lunch must come with a carton of whole milk. In Europe, lunches come with a carton of skim milk. This also translates to the cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products they serve. Soda is another bad habit that should not be started at a young age. School lunches in other countries do not have the option of purchasing soda anywhere in the cafeteria. If every school were to get rid of soda entirely this would make a significant difference instantly. These small differences are what greatly affect the nutritional value of a meal. We have not caught up to the schools of other nations and there is a question of why. Unless serious steps are taken to make changes, school lunches will continue to be overall unhealthy.
What are some schools doing to change the way we look at lunch? It is no secret that eating organic is overall more beneficial for your health and well being. Preparing food properly and getting it from a natural and reliable source can make a big difference as well. The San Francisco school has taken steps in providing students with fresh meals by creating a customized lunch program. They are very particular about where their food comes from. They support local organic farmers and local businesses. They understand the importance of eating fresh and natural food and how much of a difference it can make in the child’s diet. They get all of their beef and pork from Niman Ranch where the animals are not given any antibiotics and are raised on sustainable farms. They even order fresh fruit weekly and choose only fruits that are seasonal. They have made their kitchen to be open so that parents, students, and teachers can see how it is all being carefully prepared. This open kitchen idea goes back to the fact that the way food is prepared is extremely important. Cutting off fat, baking rather than frying, and using less salt can all affect the outcome of the meal. After the lunch is prepared, teachers and students help bring the food back to the classroom and eat it all together. This promotes a family style type of lunch that allows children to interact and enjoy their food together. This way of eating goes back to pre-industrial times when people generally came home for lunch to be with their families. They also use specific days of the week for different meals. For example, Tuesdays are Soup Days, where the students will try a new soup with a vegetable or salad side.
Initiatives like The San Francisco School are changing the way kids eat and making lunch a meal that students actually want to eat. Other programs similar to this one include tending to a garden and harvesting those crops for lunch. By giving kids the opportunity to grow their own food they are taught how hard work turns into something that they can use. It is also less costly for schools because growing food is significantly cheaper than buying it from a big chain grocery store. Supporting farmers markets is also more cost effective. Growing your own food for your meal is rewarding and emphasizes teamwork among students. Being able to work together to provide a meal is a great experience for children.
Paying for school lunch has also been a problem recently. It is costly, ineffective, and has parents becoming frustrated. In Pinellas County, Florida an electronic lunch payment system was created that allowed students to pay for meals with a fast and easy scan of their fingertips. This system started a few years ago and was federally funded. This has caused a debate between legislatures and school boards. Unfortunately the system was outlawed due to the use of the student’s biometrics. People are worried that this could potentially set a student up for being a victim of identity fraud down the road. In actuality, no social security numbers or personal information is used to pay for the meals. It requires only the information that the student has already had to provide to the schools. If anything this system makes paying more secure because the payments are specific to the child’s fingerprint and cannot be replicated. Parents and teachers are fighting to keep this system in place by showing legislatures that it is not harmful but rather extremely efficient and convenient. Another benefit to this system is that it also lets the staff know about any food allergies that child has, making it safer for the child to eat the lunch provided that day. Parents also are able to control the money that goes into their account and see what money come out, rather than handing them cash and not knowing exactly what it was spent on. PIN numbers were often traded among students resulting in confusion for both the staff and parents. If the system is outlawed it will go back to the old system of millions of dollars of spending.
In today’s world, technology is the future. Banning something so efficient is never in the best interest of anyone. Every area of schools is becoming more technological and will continue to. It is important to not fall behind in the use of technology but rather embrace it and let it make daily life easier. Technology influences the way students learn, the way teachers teach, and makes the day go by faster and more efficiently. Schools are now using technology to make dismissals safer and easier. Technology is unavoidable and continues to grow everyday.