Change is in the air with School Lunch Programs

February 13th, 2009

As we were working on our program on school lunches, I found that I am more hopeful than I expected. In many ways, school lunches haven’t changed much since my experiences in the 60s. The same menus and the same attitude about lunches – they are a necessary part of the school experience but not an important part.

What we found is that the largest force in creating our school lunch programs is the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA provides funding and products for 95% of the schools in America. The underlying system is one that is shaped by the agricultural lobby in support of factory style farming. This program went into high gear during the Reagan years and has been largely unchanged since.

It is a program that rewards overproduction by providing a guaranteed market. This market is not the traditional consumer market or the fast food industry, it is for our kids. Look at the lunch menu of most schools, and you will find the usual suspects – hamburgers, beef ravioli, mac & cheese, hot dogs, pizza. Accompaniments are offered, such as vegetables, but you find that the kids don’t really eat much of those. Instead, they load up on ‘comfort food’.

The USDA nutrition guidelines are focused on the menu rather than what’s actually consumed. This disparity creates an imbalance in what kids eat, and this imbalance has several effects. Teachers notice that their students often lack energy in the afternoon. No wonder, when they have a carbohydrate centered lunch. The other effect is obesity. More and more of our young people are obese. The habits of eating are a major contributor to this rising crisis.

In schools, we often don’t realize that what our kids eat is as important as their math or English class. What they eat sets patterns for the rest of their life. Schools can play a significant role in educating children’s palates on what’s good for them. This education can help re-write their attraction to what tastes good, and may not be very healthy.

During our program on school lunches, we talk to some people who are making a difference in school lunches in two ways. The first is that they are committed to providing kids with healthy, fresh food that tastes great. Through building a trusting relationship with students and treating them as guests, food programs are being offered where children arrive home from school still full from lunch, and they eat a small evening meal.

The second outcome of these innovative programs is fostering the local family farm. By buying local (within 150 miles) produce, school lunch programs get great quality, fresh food that the students love. They are also creating a consistent market for farmers that encourages them to plant more, and gives them an outlet beyond the summer-only farmer’s markets.

We will be following up with other companies who are primary suppliers of school lunch programs to see if they can aim their aspirations in the same direction of these courageous and innovative people on our program today.

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