The great school lunch debate

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By Jess Scott Wright, RDN

Though breakfast has long maintained its reputation as “the most important meal of the day,” lunch proves to be the most controversial one, especially when it comes to school lunch.

School is back in session and that means the midday moot known as lunch is back on the table as the government prepares to review effectiveness of nutrition polices set forth over the past five years.

Lunch hasn’t always been what it is today; in fact, the 1755 definition for lunch from “A Dictionary of the English Language” was simply, “as much food as one’s hand can hold.” Sometime between 1850 and the turn of the 20th century, the rise of industrialization and longer workdays away from the home made the second meal of the day as essential as breakfast or dinner.

Since then, the lunch break has evolved into much more than a mealtime – both children and adults cherish this break in the day.

Think about what lunch means to you as a meal and time of day.

What about when you were a kid? Do you remember your lunchbox or what was in it? Maybe you ate school lunch – what was that like?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has tripled since 1980, and many Americans believe food available in school is largely responsible for the rapid increase in childhood obesity over the last 35 years.

Because I was an overweight kid born in 1986, I suppose I am part of that statistic. While I do not remember eating many school lunches as a kid, I do remember my red Roger Rabbit lunchbox packed with things like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Little Debbie snack cakes, Dunkaroos, Gushers, Fruit by the Foot, and if I was really lucky, a Lunchable, the holy grail of ready-made lunches. Nearly 30 years later, after its debut in 1988, the Lunchable continues to be a popular pre-made lunch item joined by the plethora of other packaged convenience and snack foods marketed to kids.

So which is unhealthier, packed lunch or school lunch?

Packed lunch has the potential to be far healthier than school lunch, but unlike school lunch, it has no limits on how unhealthy it may be. No one regulates packed lunches or any of the other foods or drinks consumed outside of mealtimes at school.

School meals provided under the national school lunch/breakfast programs are consistently scrutinized for lacking quality and nutritional value, as the demographic majority reliant on these meals is often associated with increased risk of childhood obesity. More than 31 million kids receive low-cost or free lunches via The National School Lunch Program, some who rely on these meals as their primary source of food for the day.

In 2010, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act made significant changes to the school lunch program for the first time in 15 years. Those changes are set to expire September 30 and many opponents feel guidelines such as the mandatory selection of a fruit and sodium restriction have led to increased plate waste, as well as students selling salt packets to make the food more palatable. On the other hand, some school districts feel students have welcomed the healthier standards. Conflicting research studies provide evidence to support those both for and against the more stringent nutritional guidelines.

Even with the new guidelines, I have yet to see a school menu that screams “healthy,” but I also realize how difficult it must be to plan a menu students will like that is within budget and meets nutritional guidelines set by the government – not an easy task.

When it comes to Blaine, not only is food service director Laurie Pike committed to making lunchtime a positive experience, she is also open to any viable suggestions or solutions the community has to improve the current system.

“Lunch should be the happiest time of everyone’s day,” Pike said.

Though she acknowledges the challenges of her job, she emphasized how rewarding it feels to see kids enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables some have never tried before.

“They go wild for the strawberries,” Pike said.

When students don’t like a certain food, Pike offers them the same advice she gave to her own kids:“I’m a big believer that taste buds change; don’t write it off your list that you’ll never like it because someday you might!”

Ask your kids about lunchtime when you talk to them about their day. Be aware of their experiences before reintroducing foods to them or offering new foods to try, but don’t remind them of a negative experience. When your kids start taking a liking to certain healthy foods, find different ways to enjoy them. Boredom from eating the same things too often may be mistaken for dislike.

Lead by example. Keep an open mind to continuously try the foods you aren’t so fond of and remember sandwiches don’t define lunch – you do.

For questions or comments please contact Jess at nutritionwiser@gmail.com.

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