For a country that is increasingly concerned with health and nutrition, America is seeing an interesting debate develop around school lunches. GOP leaders, along with the School Nutrition Association (SNA), have recently begun to fight back against laws that standardize school nutrition. No, it’s not for the sake of reverting children to unhealthy eating—it’s an economic issue, because healthy food is expensive. The SNA is seeking a solution for schools that are consistently losing revenue due to providing lunches that meet government nutrition standards.
But first, let’s back up a little. I don’t remember my school lunches being anything near healthy. French fries, giant pretzels, the ever-popular chocolate chip cookies the size of your head—these are the things that filled our plates in elementary school. This actually lasted well into high school, when you’d think we would know better, especially with after-school sports and activities that require well-fueled bodies and minds.
In an attempt to combat such unhealthy eating at school, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. The act, supported by First Lady Michelle Obama, was designed to improve the quality of nutrition in food served for school lunches and after-school snacks. It proposed changes that replaced bean-and-cheese burritos with subs on whole wheat bread, mozzarella sticks and tater tots with baked sweet potato fries and grape tomatoes, and traditional condiments with low-fat ranch dressing and margarine. These changes might seem small to some of us, but to kids who are used to filling their bodies with junk food, they were nothing short of drastic.
In fact, Congress’ good intentions did not pan out, resulting in recent complaints. In support of the opt-out waivers proposed by the GOP bill, the SNA cited alarming statistics: in the 2012-2013 school year, 47% of school meal programs saw a revenue decline, in addition to the nine to ten percent that reported rising food costs.
While the economic situation of hard-pressed schools is certainly an issue to address, what the country should really be focusing on is a bigger problem: why did school lunch revenues see a decline with an increase in healthy food options? In other words, why was there a negative response among students to healthier food?
The bottom line is the way this country views food: primarily as the solution for a craving, instead of as nutrition. According to a Los Angeles study cited in Olga Khazan’s article in The Atlantic, “among the students who took a fruit or vegetable from the lunch line, 22% threw away the fruit, and 31% tossed the vegetable, without eating a single bite.”
Khazan also notes that it takes kids eight to ten exposures to a new food to actually learn to like it. By those standards, if kids are munching on chips and cookies at home, it would take them two weeks of healthy school lunches to potentially decide that they like the new lunch substitutes. How many kids that you know would voluntarily select newly added fruits and veggies from the lunch line for two weeks? Yeah, not many.
Therefore, what should really be under attack here is not the nutrition regulations, despite economic shortfalls, but the American diet promoted at these children’s homes. According to Khazan and the USDA, the average U.S. consumption of meats, eggs, nuts and grains exceeds the MyPlate recommendations, while the amount of vegetables, dairy and fruits consumed falls short. And when Americans are choosing fruits or vegetables, they’re often choosing potatoes, canned tomatoes, oranges and apples—all good, but less nutritionally dense than the overlooked berries, broccoli and dark greens.
So, the next time you’re eating in the dining hall, don’t skimp on the fruits and veggies. The government, and your body, will thank you.