Are Healthy School Lunches Actually Bad for Kids?

School Lunch
Image: United States Department of Agriculture

America is in the midst of a massive food fight. On one side are those who advocate for stricter government controls over the kinds of food that can be sold and government incentives to promote healthy eating. On the other side are those who believe that all food choices are personal matters. In local politics, this battle plays itself out in trans-fat bans and soda taxes, but like all good food fights, this one is most intense in the school cafeteria. As the one place where large numbers of Americans are fed on a daily basis by the government, the school cafeteria is at the forefront of American food policy.

Not surprisingly, in light of America’s growing childhood obesity problem, many schools are opting to restrict processed foods and sweets. The switch to a healthy diet for children who aren’t accustomed to it can be a tricky adjustment. As a recent report in the LA Times pointed out, many schoolchildren in Chicago have reacted to healthy lunch options by shunning lunch altogether, opting instead for candy and cookies purchased elsewhere. If healthy school lunches are going to make kids choose even worse food, should Chicago change course?

I’m not surprised by the kids’ reaction. I sometimes stop at the bodega on the corner to pick up milk or Cheerios in the morning and it is packed with middle- and high-schoolers loading up on candy, pastries, and soda. (They also do a brisk business holding students’ cellphones for them for a dollar a day.) To counter this tendency to bring unhealthy food to school, many schools are becoming sweets-free, but I suspect that in the schools where this is most needed, it’s impossible to implement. A lot of schools can’t worry about Swedish fish because they have bigger fish to fry.

Still, I think moves toward healthier menus like Chicago is implementing are important. First, for kids who aren’t exposed to many vegetables or whole grains, this provides the chance (however slim) for students to find out that they like something that’s good for them. Second, it models good choices so that even if kids refuse to make those choices now, they’re learning what they are for later. In any event, Chicago students should just be glad they aren’t in Boston where school cafeterias were recently busted serving expired food, sometimes from 2009. In response a schools spokesman said that expiration dates are just guidelines. Yum.

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