A deeper look into school lunch

Saying good things about school lunch never has been fashionable, but recent changes seem to have provoked more concern than usual. I posted a blog about changes in school lunch last month. The responses prompted me to investigate the situation further by eating lunch at threschool lunche schools — one urban, one suburban and one rural. The first step (and maybe the trickiest) was to get my nieces to let me eat with them. After some sweet talking and conferring with friends, they agreed. A colleague got me into the third school to eat with her son and his friends.

Take a look at a comparison chart of what I observed about menu choices, costs, security and supervision, time to eat, etc. along with photos of my lunches.

Children’s health is important to everyone — parents, USDA, schools, school lunch managers, parents, etc. However, we all have a different viewpoint, from USDA, which has developed program policies using the latest science based nutrition information, to parents trying to provide their child’s wants and needs on a family budget.

Much has changed in the 15 years since school lunch regulations were previously updated. Now school lunches fit the 2010 Dietary Guidelines: half the foods on the plate are fruits and vegetables, whole grains have increased, and milk is low-fat or fat free. Serving sizes are moderate. Condiments, which can be high in sodium, are limited.

lunch tray
My lunch tray … I didn’t care for creamed corn or fruit salad with coconut, so my menu options were a bit limited.

The meals I ate at school tasted pretty good and were inexpensive (I paid about $3). Each meal had a protein source, fruit, vegetable, milk and grain (except the meal that ran out of corn muffins). I thought the cheese bread with marinara sauce was great, the chili and fresh spinach tasted good, and the cantaloupe was about the best I’ve had this summer. The fish tasted fine, but because I don’t like creamed corn or fruit salad with coconut, I didn’t take either. My meal was a bit limited that day.

All the schools served 3 to 4 different fruits and vegetables, including at least one that was fresh. We served ourselves fruits and vegetables, meaning we could take more of something we liked. The kids I ate with who did not eat fruits or vegetables had less to eat. I think parents could help by serving more fruits and vegetables at home. Eating fruits and vegetables in any form is what is important – it doesn’t matter if fresh or frozen or canned; or whether organic or conventionally raised or local. New foods take a while to get used to.

One of the complaints about the new school lunch is that the portions are not large enough (more on this topic in next weeks blog). If your child tells you they are hungry, the first thing to do is make sure they are eating breakfast. This year the Iowa Department of Education and Midwest Dairy are partnering on a School Breakfast Challenge to increase daily school breakfast participation by 20%.

I enjoyed eating lunch at school with my nieces and colleague’s son. It was fun to see the kids interacting with their friends and understand more about the hustle and bustle of middle school.

Stay tuned … next week I’ll blog about ala carte options and getting enough to eat.

4 thoughts on “A deeper look into school lunch

  1. I liked this entry! I think we could all benefit from seeing the reality of school cafeterias and all of the efforts schools are making to provide nourishing, enjoyable meals. Schools are doing the right thing by offering a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, parents can help by familiarizing their children with these foods so they can take full advantage of what’s available at school.

  2. Looking forward to next week’s entry. My kids eat breakfast every morning, and they like fruits and veggies. My 4th grader (9 yrs old girl) says she has enough to eat on most days, but sometimes her food is cold, and it doesn’t taste right. My 7th grader (12 yrs old boy) is starving. He has breakfast before he leaves in the morning, participates in Cross Country (running 2 to 3 miles) before school, I provide fresh fruit and protein bar for him to eat between practice and class, he has to have lunch at 10:40 in the morning, and by the time he is home after school 3:45, he is “starving”. Perhaps it is that he is going through a growth spurt, but I wonder how students can learn when they are still hungry.

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