Back to School (Lunch) Season: Part 1

US News

This is the first blog in a two-part series about childhood nutrition and school lunch. Part 2 will focus on school lunches brought from home.

Department store aisles are filling up with backpacks and notebooks, glue sticks and crayons, and fun fall outfits for budding fashionistas who want to make a statement in the school halls. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made its statement, and its echo is still resonating throughout school cafeterias across the country: School food must change. They instituted new guidelines that mandated more (and more diverse) fresh vegetables and fruits, more whole grains and calorie limits.

[Read: So Long, Sloppy Joe: What's Cooking At School.]

The USDA had good reason to take a stand. For the first time in two centuries, children have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, primarily because of diet-related diseases like obesity and diabetes. One out of every three children in this country is overweight or obese, and what is most disheartening is that school lunch - before the new USDA guidelines - actually contributed to childhood obesity.

Recent research by the University of Michigan Health System showed that middle school children who regularly ate school lunches were more likely to be overweight or obese, to develop poorer eating habits and to have high levels of "bad" cholesterol compared to those who brought lunches from home.

The new USDA guidelines were a great step in the right direction, but then something completely unforeseeable happened (please note my sarcasm here): Students complained. They said they were hungry. They made videos and staged boycotts and said they needed more French fries and burgers and nachos and less apples and lettuce. In essence, they were doing normal stuff that kids do when you try to make them do something that's good for them.

[Read: Hungry vs. Healthy: The School Lunch Controversy.]

In response, the USDA rolled back its limits on proteins and grains. What's also disappointing is that school food vendors are finding ways to incorporate the new guidelines into highly-processed, ready-to-heat food that has little nutritional value. So instead of chicken nuggets, we now have chicken nuggets with whole-grain breading, which are still loaded with fat, sodium and preservatives.

And the shenanigans continue. We all know that pizza and French fries count as vegetables in our children's school lunches (thanks to the tomato and potato lobbies). But did you know that the dairy lobby is fighting to hide the fact that flavored milk sold in school contains aspartame and other non-nutritive sweeteners? Their argument is that children will drink more milk if it's sweetened, so why put scary stuff on the front of labels that may make parents think twice?

[Read: What's Wrong With Artificial Sweeteners.]

None of this needs to be an issue. Healthy school food is not just possible, it's a reality in many schools across the nation. In my 15 years as a "lunch lady," I have seen school district after school district change its school food. In each case, that change was driven by one important group: parents. If you want to change the school food in your community, take action now.

1. Form a small group of like-minded parents. Create a plan that includes research, advocacy, outreach and education.

2. Research: Go to school, and eat school meals with your child. Get to know the school menu. Ask for nutritional information. Find out what other schools across the country are doing to improve their school food.

3. Advocacy: Ask for a meeting with your school district superintendent and director of nutrition services. Share your research with them. Ask about finding a "buddy school" that can serve as a model for change. Here are some small changes that make a big difference:

-- Put a salad bar in every school.

-- Make water available at every meal.

-- Serve only white, low-fat milk at lunch (because chocolate milk is soda in drag).

-- Get rid of deep fryers, and bake the French fries instead (or better yet, how about sweet potato fries made from scratch and baked in an oven?).

-- Make simple changes in ingredients: brown rice instead of white, hormone and antibiotic-free beef and chicken, whole-wheat crust, roasted chicken instead of nuggets, low-fat cheeses, nitrate-free pepperoni and whole, fresh fruit instead of canned fruit in syrup.

4. Outreach: Recruit parents and students for your cause. Go to PTA meetings and school board meetings. Host fundraisers. Talk to the media. Let folks know that not only is it possible to change school food but that they can help change it.

5. Education: When even the smallest changes do start happening, educate the community about the importance of good childhood nutrition. A cooking contest, a visit to a local farm or planting a school garden are all great ways to get your school community thinking about - and talking about - food.

You'll meet resistance. You'll find parents who think chocolate milk is fine, and you'll come across students who are angry that you are trying to take away their neon-colored nacho cheese sauce. Real change might take a year or more. But don't give up. If you won't fight the school-food fight, then it is already lost.

[Read: It's Up to Us, Not Our Kids, to Change the Food Environment.]

For more tips from Chef Ann on how to get involved in school-food reform in your community, visit The Lunch Box.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Chef Ann Cooper is a celebrated author, chef, educator and enduring advocate for better food for all children. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Ann has been a chef for more than 30 years, over 15 of those in school food programs. Her books, Bitter Harvest and Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, established her as a leading advocate for safe, sustainable food. Known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann has been honored by The National Resources Defense Council, selected as a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow and awarded an honorary doctorate from SUNY Cobleskill for her work on sustainable agriculture. In 2009, Ann founded Food Family Farming Foundation (F3), a nonprofit focusing on solutions to the school food crisis. F3's pivotal project is The Lunch Box, a web portal that provides free and accessible tools, recipes and resources to support school food reform.

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