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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Celebrating School Lunch

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, just over 20 percent of households with children under 18 experienced food insecurity in 2011. This means that at some point during the year, the household had difficulty providing enough food for all its members due to a lack of resources.

Many of these households were able to shield children from the effects of food insecurity -- in just over 10 percent, it was only the adults in the household that suffered. But that still means that in 10 percent of households, there were children (and adults) going hungry.

Many argue that we as a nation have a moral imperative to ensure that children have enough to eat. But if emotion alone doesn't convince you, consider that hunger has an impact on the behavior, emotions and academics of children. Children who experience hunger (PDF) have lower test scores, are more likely to have repeated a grade and are more likely to receive special education services than their peers. They are also more likely to be hyperactive and absent or tardy, as well as have behavioral and attention problems.

Facts like this underscore the importance of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which we celebrate during National School Lunch Week. NSLP is a federally assisted meal program that operates in over 100,000 public and nonprofit schools and residential child-care facilities, providing nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children. In fiscal year 2011, it provided lunch to an average of 31.8 million children each school day. Fifty-eight percent of the lunches served were free and an additional eight percent were provided at reduced price to low-income students. NSLP plays a crucial role in the nutrition of many students in our country.

Higher Standards for School Lunches

We have all heard the discouraging statistics regarding the childhood obesity rate, which has tripled over the past 30 years. One in five American children is obese, which increases their risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

To help combat obesity, as well as to improve student health in other ways, this year children are seeing new nutrition standards implemented in their school lunches. These standards were developed based on the latest research in nutrition science. They ensure students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day; increase offerings of whole grain-rich foods; offer only fat-free or low-fat milk; limit calories allowed in each meal; and increase focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium in meals.

Of course, not everyone is happy about these changes. As The New York Times recently reported, students from Pittsburgh to western Kansas are protesting, displeased with both the smaller portion sizes of foods they like (such as pizza and French Fries) and the increased cost that those who do not qualify for free or reduced price lunch must pay. Students complain that they are hungry, which may be because for the first time school lunches cannot exceed a maximum calorie count (or it may be because some students don't eat the fruit and vegetable component of their lunch).

Helping Students Eat Healthy

These healthier meals will not have their intended impact if students do not eat them. How can educators help ensure the new nutrition standards are implemented successfully? Ideas include:

  • Speak positively about the school meal program
  • Encourage students to try new meals, even if they're unfamiliar
  • Incorporate nutrition education into the curriculum, helping students understand the importance of healthy eating
  • Support the overall message of healthy eating by serving healthier items during class parties and not using food as a reward
  • Keep parents informed by including information about improvements to school meals in class newsletters, electronic communications and so on

Parents can help, too. The National Review the school menu and ask your child what he or she ate at school

NSLP is extremely important in supporting the health of students, particularly low-income and other students whose households may be experiencing food insecurity. What many people do not know is that there is also a national School Breakfast Program (SBP) that operates much as the NSLP. Schools participating in this program are also held to nutrition standards, and low-income students qualify for free or reduced meals.

Research suggests that breakfast is the most important meal of the day for children's health, yet nationally, less than a quarter of all students and less than half of students who are eligible for a free or reduced-price breakfast are eating it. Increasing participation in this program could have a great impact on student health. (The National Education Association Health Information Network offers a guide on the benefits of breakfast and tips for increasing participation if you are interested in learning more.)

Whether it is breakfast or lunch, serving food in our schools provides the opportunity to impact children's lives in a variety of ways. And so during National School Lunch Week and every day, we should celebrate it.

Comments (3)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

ZilYdal's picture

I am in 100% full support of making lunches more nutritious. Our students need to be given healthy, whole foods while at school. We have no control over what types of foods are given at home, but many unhealthy foods are the foods that are readily accessible to those with low incomes. Serving more nutritionally dense foods at school will result in students having a more balanced meal, access to nutrients that are necessary to development, and ultimately students behavior and academic performance will be better. Someday I hope all schools have to serve whole grains with no added sugars or enriched flours, many tasty vegetable and fruit options, as well as lean proteins.

Stephanie Kennedy's picture

Ms. O'Brien,

I want to first applaud you for writing so passionately about the subject of healthy school lunches. I could tell that it is something you care about deeply and have thought much about. Thank you for highlighting how the nutrition of school lunches affects so much more than just if the student's belly is full by the end of his or her meal. That is not to say that a child getting enough to eat from their lunch is not a top priority because of course it is. What you have so thoughtfully demonstrated in your article is that the end goal of preparing excellent school lunches is not simple at all; in fact it is quite complex and at times downright daunting. A school lunch must be nutritious, healthy yet tasty, properly proportioned, and varied - all in addition to being affordable enough for schools to produce and students to purchase. How can one meal possibly fit all of those criteria?

Your list of how teachers can help to promote new healthy school lunches in the classroom was impressive and spoke to me as an aspiring educator. An overall theme I noticed throughout your suggestions was communication with the family of students to ensure that the same positive ideas about healthy eating at school are reinforced at home. This is an ideal situation, one in which the parents, grandparents and siblings of children all enjoy the freedom to consistently access nutritious food options. As many educators know all too well, one of the most consistently frustrating reasons for kids not eating healthy school lunches is because of their family's financial situation. According to several studies, children who are victims of food insecurity frequently do worse in school than students who are not victims of it. Hunger and nutrition contributor to Livestrong.com Gail Sessums explains: Children who are hungry, and who live in homes where finances cause a stressful environment, often have difficulty socializing with peers and exhibit troublesome behavior due to stress, fatigue, poor concentration and poor coping skills." That is just a few examples of the many setbacks that children experience in school due to food insecurity at home. Moreover, the school that the child attends may not be receiving enough funds to offer those healthy choices. This is a perpetual problem in urban schools, which more often than not receive miniscule funding, if any at all. There are many non-profit organizations and volunteer programs that function as advocates for healthy food options for low-income families, including large ones like Feeding America, and smaller ones such as Slow Food NYC. Circling back to your list of suggestions for teachers and parents, I am wondering if you have any suggestions for parents in low-income households of how to promote eating healthily at school? It is not easy to exhibit making nutritious choices to children if their top concern is making sure food is on the table at all.

Feeding America: http://feedingamerica.org/
Slow Food NYC: http://www.slowfoodnyc.org/program/urban_harvest

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator

Years ago, my youngest child was a participant in a program called Early Sprouts at Keene State College (http://www.earlysprouts.org). It was a great early childhood program, designed to encourage kids to explore a variety of foods by participating in the process of growing and preparing food (something that lots of places do now, but it was new then). The ironic part was that, while she participated in almost all aspects of the program, she wouldn't eat any of it. Now, years later, she still won't- in spite of every effort on our part. (We eat lots of fruits and veggies as a family, but she simply won't consume most of them.) I guess my point is that adults can do all kinds of things to encourage kids to eat right, but some kids just won't eat some foods. I see a lot of healthy food in the garbage at school and the waste makes me sad.

I wonder how we balance our desire to present kids with the healthiest options possible with the reality that no one is well served when food goes in the trash?

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