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Mixed Reviews for Stricter School Lunch Menus

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Long mocked for its inedibility, campus cafeteria food is undergoing a federally mandated transformation, and schools are realizing it’s going to take more than sprinkling kale on pizza to really change the way students eat.

A recent New York Times article  examined the challenges on the school nutrition landscape, and the fallout from a federal overhaul of mandatory nutrition standards for school meals.

More fruits and vegetables are on the menu but too often uneaten portions of what are supposed to be healthier meals wind up in the trash can instead of fueling students, concludes reporter Kate Murphy. Federal lawmakers are debating whether to keep the new standards, signed into law in 2012:

“The Department of Agriculture is urging Congress to reauthorize the act to give children and cafeteria operators enough time to adjust. But farm-fresh food, scratch cooking and nutrition education cost money that less affluent school districts like Detroit Public Schools don’t have. The solution there was to take advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision (C.E.P.) in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which allows high-poverty districts to provide free meals to all students. That way they get more money from the government and don’t have to rely so much on sales to better-off students who have other options.”

There’s evidence some school districts are getting the hang of the new regulations, and that school meals are improving in both quality and appeal. Murphy cites Detroit as just one example, where all deep-fat fryers have been removed from the campus cafeterias and fresh greens are grown in the district’s own gardens. (EWA members sampled the Detroit Schools’ fresher fare during  a journalists-only seminar on the teaching profession last fall.)

There are myriad challenges to getting students to not only accept but actually consume unfamiliar foods, not the least of which is many of them come to school with their preferences already firmly entrenched by the fare they eat at home. That can be tough to overcome. As the New York Times reported, countries with lower rates of childhood obesity, like Finland and France, have school lunch menus that seem more concerned with broadening students’ palates than with calorie counts. And kids get more time to actually eat their meals and interact with their classmates.

Time can be a issue for U.S. schools, particularly overcrowded high schools where the first lunch shift can come before 10 a.m. (Many schools call them “nutrition breaks”, instead, to avoid the obvious irony.) And in the younger grades, kids sometimes leave their meals unfinished so they have more time to play outside. (The National Education Association supports the “Recess First” campaign, which encourages schools to let kids play before they’re they asked to eat.) With recess curtailed and even eliminated in many districts, the lunch break is the only chance some students have to socialize.

In a recent story, NPR reported on a new study of a low-income school district in Massachusetts, which concluded kids with less than 20 minutes for lunch weren’t eating enough. From NPR:

“(Researchers) saw these students eating 13 percent less of their main entree and 12 percent less of their vegetables. They drank 10 percent less milk, too, compared with students who had 25 minutes or more to eat. They also found more food waste among kids who had less time to eat.”

“Many children, especially those from low-income families, rely on school meals for up to half their daily energy intake, so it is essential that we give students a sufficient amount of time to eat their lunches,” Juliana Cohen, a Harvard University School of Public Health researcher and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

These are all problems. It’s also a problem that too many children come to school hungry, and go home to houses with inadequate food supplies to meet a family’s needs. But how much of the burden to find solutions should rest with schools?

A few years ago I posed that question, after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the adolescent obesity rate had hit a 30-year high. In the wake of that disturbing statistic, the American Medical Association called for requiring anti-obesity lessons at the K-12 level.

That hasn’t happened yet, and many educators — and, frankly, families –  would probably prefer those extra minutes used to restore recess or expand physical education programs that were curtailed in the recession’s wake. But it’s clear schools realize they have a tremendous opportunity to influence student health. And what’s served in the cafeterias is only a small slice of that apple.