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Should School Lunch Program Lift Calorie Caps So Athletes Won’t Get Hungry?

school lunch, usda

Fish wrap. Fresh fruit. Full belly.

On paper, the overhaul of school lunches in the U.S. this year look great — more fresh fruits and vegetables, less junk, sugared up milks no longer an option.

In practice, though, the changes have earned mixed reactions. Some parents and school officials worry that the healthier foods are incompatible with their students’ palates — which means more food wasted or fewer meals sold. Others say students don’t get enough options, what with a la carte burgers and pizza no longer available.

By far the biggest complaint, though, has been about portion sizes. While the guidelines up the apples and carrot sticks, overall calories have been capped, which affects portion sizes of the rest of the meal, and some students have complained they don’t feel full.

Some high school students in Kansas made a video [see below] that went viral last month complaining of how hungry students are by the end of the day. The video is a little clever. But mostly it’s short-sighted. The students who are “passing out” from hunger are doing so on the volleyball court, the weight room and on the football field. Same thing for a Wisconsin high school, where students tried to boycott to the new meals because athletes complained only provided 750 to 850 out of the 3,000 calories they needed each day for practice and to compete.

But here’s the thing: not every student is an athlete. And, anyway, there’s a fix for that. It’s called a snack.

The advocacy organization Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, interviewed their project director, Jessica Donze Black, about the new program and some of what critics have said. You can read the full interview here, but the bottom line is, student athletes don’t have to go hungry. And that doesn’t mean bringing back chicken nuggets.

From the interview:

Question: Are these enough calories for highly-active students such as athletes?

Donze Black: Yes, for most kids this is more than enough. Of course, a relatively small number of extraordinarily active students, such as competitive athletes, may need more calories to prepare for significant after-school athletic activities than one lunch provided to all students can offer. Schools and families can help this small group of students prepare for athletic activities with a la carte foods, after-school snack and supper programs, or even snacks from home.

Schools also can provide an afterschool snack through the National School Lunch Program, or a snack and an evening meal through the At-Risk Afterschool Meals component of the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

The bottom line is that, with one in three children in our country overweight or obese, we can’t keep feeding all kids like they’re athletes in vigorous training. We need to provide healthy foods and beverages and appropriate portion sizes and calorie limits to promote good health and help kids maintain a healthy weight.

Some of the push back in these meals is the fact that government agencies set the guidelines and enforce them through funding. But what Black also points out is that this has been the case since the 1940s. This isn’t the Obama administration deciding to force-feed young kids apples, the government has for decades played a role in what gets served at schools. This just happens to be the first time obesity has been considered in addition to the original mission of the federal school lunch program, which was to make sure all children had the chance to eat.

It’s funny how a lot of internet bandwidth gets expended on asking and answering how to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. But when it comes to schools actually serving them, there’s push-back. Every story about the health of this nation includes rage-y comments from readers who think kids need to make better choices and parents need to teach them how. But parents don’t control school lunch menus so kids who don’t bring lunch from home eat high-calorie crap if that is what’s served. Somehow we expect kids to take the high road, even when there are few other options.

Black points out that schools are continuing to experiment with meals within the new parameters. Some survey the student body and monitor trash cans to find out what’s a hit and what’s a miss and they adjust accordingly.

As for the athletes? My guess is they and the coaches are bringing in snacks and that most were too hungry to keep up their part in a boycott of lunch.

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