Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way America Feeds its Children

Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes

Outside Mullen Hall, a Massachusetts public elementary school on Katherine Lee Bates Road, just across from the Falmouth Public Library there is, inevitably, a traffic jam just before nine o'clock each weekday morning. Caused in no small part by the crossing guard who works at a perplexing pace, the confusing beehive of activity seems endless. Children hurry out of minivans by the dozens, backpacks dragging the ground as they run toward the school's front door. Some parents linger and watch while their children cross the road. Others slam shut the doors and drive off, latte in the cup holder, cell phone in hand, the instant their children's feet hit the pavement.

There is a striking absence of lunchboxes or bags or any sort of lunch carrying vessel. It is possible, of course, that lunch is carefully packed away somewhere in those backpacks, but more likely the kids are just eating school lunch.

Since these children are still quite young most aren't showing signs of obesity yet, but if their eating habits don't change now they'll soon be on the wrong end of the statistics. The percentage of obese children in America today has more than doubled since 1970. Over 35% of our nation's children are overweight, 25% are obese, and 14% have Type II Diabetes, a condition previously seen primarily in adults. Processed foods favored by schools and busy moms for their convenience not only contribute to obesity; they also contain additives and preservatives and are tainted with herbicide and pesticide residues that are believed to cause a variety of illnesses, including cancer. In fact, current research shows that 40% of all cancers are attributable to diet. Over 400,000 Americans die of diet-related illness each year, 300,000 of those deaths are the result of obesity-related diseases. People in America today simply do not know how to eat properly and they don't seem to have time to figure out how, so fast food, home meal replacements, and processed foods take the place of good, healthy cooking, and there couldn't be a worse alternative.

There is increasing concern across the nation about children's health as it relates to diet. Most parents don't even know what constitutes good childhood nutrition and many feel they lack the time they would need to spend researching it. They rely, instead, on the USDA approved National School Lunch program to be providing their children with nutritionally balanced, healthful meals. Trouble is, they're not. While most schools continue to try to meet better nutritional guidelines, they're still not measuring up, and many are actually contributing to the crisis we've seen emerging over the last decade. Food is not respected, rather, it is something that must be made and consumed with increasing speed. In part, this is the result of the fact that there are more kids than ever in schools with smaller facilities, forcing several short lunch shifts. Decreasing budgets, in many cases, have caused a decline in the quality of school meals.

For the most part, school lunch has deteriorated to institutional-style mayhem. Walk through the kitchen or lunchroom of almost any public or private school and "fast food nation" will ring with striking clarity. USDA-approved portions of processed foods are haphazardly dished out by harried cafeteria workers to frenzied students hurrying to finish their food in time for ten minutes of recess. Nothing about the experience of being in a school cafeteria is calm-the din is deafening. Lunchrooms are vast open spaces filled with long tables flanked by dozens of chairs. There is no intimacy. No sense of calm. No respite from a morning of hard learning. Virtually all teachers hate lunchroom duty and view it as the most chaotic moment of their day-in fact the New York City Teachers' Union recently won the right to stay outside the lunchroom. They now drop their students off at the cafeteria door on their way to find more restful lunchtime locations.

The noise and activity levels are not the only unpalatable aspects of lunchroom dining. A full 78% of the schools in America do not actually meet the USDA's nutritional guidelines, which is no surprise considering the fact that schools keep the cost of lunch to between $1 and $1.50 per child. School lunch menus have undergone some changes in recent years and are marginally improved, but still nearly all our schools continue to operate under the misguided notion that kids actually prefer to eat frozen, processed, fried, sugary foods. Because most parents don't have time to spend in the kitchen the way the parents of generations past once did the lunch lessons children are getting in school are the primary guideposts available to them. Poor in-school health and nutrition education is causing children and, by extension, their families to make bad food choices that are translating directly in to big health problems. It is up to us, the consuming public, to not only get fast food out of our public schools, but to improve the quality of school lunches, from the nutritional content all the way to the atmosphere in our cafeterias.

Healthy Nutrition for Our Children

When it comes to nutrition, children are not just miniature adults. Because they're growing they have different dietary needs, and when they start school, even preschool, it becomes more difficult to keep an eye on what they're eating. Since it's impossible for most parents to be with their school age children at lunchtime during the week the best you can do is send them to school with a healthy, well-balanced lunch. Start educating them early about what constitutes good nutrition so that when they're given the opportunity to make their own lunch choices they'll choose the best foods available to them.

Changing the Way America Feeds its Children

Chef Ann and Lisa Holmes eye the nutritional decline of America's school cafeterias, then turn things upside-down.

The Meal Wheel

Visit Chef Ann's website to check out the Healthy Kid's Meal Wheel and a Sample School Lunch. Download the Nutrition Report Card for kids ages 6 to 18!

The Path to Change

What's going on? Links, stories and inspiration.

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