National School Lunch Program Gets an F as Some Students Opt for Less-Healthy Options

federal lunch program
It’s only healthy if you actually eat it.

My older daughter, Petunia, starts kindergarten tomorrow, and she’s equal parts excited and nervous. She’s excited because there’s a whole bucket of sea shells in the classroom. She’s nervous because she’s worried she’s not going to be able to eat anything she likes.

Petunia, 5, won’t eat meat (except for bacon). She also won’t eat any dairy. Not because she has moral objections or food allergies. She’s just stubborn. Peanut butter and jelly is pretty much her religion, but her elementary school is peanut-free. There’s a cafeteria that serves fresh fruit and salads (“that are determined by the growing season”), and all meals are “made from locally grown, sustainable ingredients,” with the goal for kids to “understand the relationship between food, health, nutrition, cultures, environment and business; the relationship children have with food will evolve into a circle benefiting not just themselves, but society as a whole,” according to a letter from her school’s food service manager.

That’s all well and good, but every meal on their September menu has dairy and/or meat, and the only relationship she’s currently interested in is the one between her mouth and stomach, both of which want PB&J. Besides, I’m not sure that she’s much better off, health-wise, with chicken alfredo bow tie pasta (which will be available on Sept. 5) or nachos (which is the main course on Sept. 17).

She’s not the only kid dissatisfied with what’s being dished up at school. The Associated Press reports that the National School Lunch Program is shrinking as some schools are dropping out because kids are eschewing the large amounts of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and choosing to go hungry instead.

The National School Lunch Program reimburses schools for meals served and grants them access to lower-priced food, but according to the AP, “districts that rejected the program say the reimbursement was not enough to offset losses from students who began avoiding the lunch line and bringing food from home or, in some cases, going hungry.”

Some school officials reported a double-digit drop in lunch sales and hungry students with behavioral problems as a result. The program reached about 31 million students nationally last year. Still, the USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services division remains optimistic about the program’s long-term prospects, and believes children just need more time to adapt to healthier food that are rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and limited in calories and salt.

It’s seems like we should just build it and they will come (and eat it). But for many reasons — stubborn children like mine, as well as children from lower income families who don’t have regular access to affordable, fresh produce options at home — school lunches will continue to be a problem.

Putting healthy lunches in front of children should be the solution, but I’m reminded of Rosie O’Donnell, who once said a nutritionist told her to replace cupcakes with carrots to lose weight.

“Wow. You just solved obesity,” O’Donnell said.

Giving kids whose taste buds are used to at least a little more excitement than baked sweet potato fries and grape tomatoes is not fooling them into eating better. Why not pour some of the money instead into nutrition classes for kids in school in which they participate in the shopping and cooking of the school lunches, and giving families who need it — and not just the schools — an opportunity to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at a discount? Kids who are invested in what they eat by participating in its preparation might be more excited about eating it.

It won’t solve the peanut-free problem (or the stubborn problem), but for plenty of others, at least it’ll be a start.

Photo credit: iStockphoto

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