The Case for Sticking With the New School Lunch Program

US News

Just in time for back-to-school season, the media is focusing its attention on a few schools that have opted out of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Three districts argue that the new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines requiring healthier meals have led to a loss of revenue and wasted food.

To put this controversial news story in perspective, first let me point out that only 1 percent of the 521 school districts surveyed by the School Nutrition Association said they were dropping out of the program. That means that 99 percent of districts continue to participate in the NSLP. Additionally, 92.7 percent of the surveyed districts say that "they do not plan, nor are considering, dropping any schools from NSLP." I consider that a pretty successful retention rate for a program that is going through significant changes affecting more than 31 million children, their families and the school food staff that serve them.

[Read: What's for Lunch? Meet the New School Menus.]

The media could have just as easily focused its attention on the many school lunch success stories. St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota and Riverside Unified School District in California are two examples of school districts thriving under the new guidelines. But since the media has once again brought up two of the more prevalent arguments against the new (and excellent) USDA guidelines for school food, I'd like to address them:

1) Schools are losing money. In other words, fewer students are buying school lunch, which decreases the amount of revenue the school generates through its lunch program.

The purpose of school food programs is not to make money. The purpose is to feed our children with meals that nourish their bodies and give them energy to focus, concentrate and learn.

School food is an investment in our children's educational success. We do not expect math, science or reading programs to bring in a profit or even break even. The money spent on feeding our students' minds will result in successful adults who contribute to their communities and build a stronger nation.

The same logic holds for feeding their bodies. Healthy, nourished children will be more successful academically. AND, when we consider how much this country is paying toward health costs to treat diet-related diseases like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, money spent on childhood nutrition now will actually result in huge cost savings.

[Read: Back to School (Lunch) Season: Part 1.]

This isn't to say that schools should just accept decreased revenue. School food programs can be financially sustainable. Schools should plan for an initial decrease in student participation after big changes. Children who are used to eating french fries with every meal will initially balk at a pear or apple replacing all that salt and fat. But schools should also expect a gradual increase in student participation each year of the new program as students get used to the changes and develop a taste for fresh fruits and vegetables. Better yet, each year's incoming class doesn't have to get used to any changes. Healthy school food is the only school food they know.

As the director of nutrition services for Boulder Valley School District, I initiated changes five years ago that were even more drastic than those called for by the USDA. Something as simple as getting chocolate milk out of the cafeterias caused a backlash. Fewer students bought school lunch, as I expected. But since then, participation has gone up every year, and this year, I hope to see the participation rate continue to increase.

[Read: School Over Scalpels.]

2) Food is wasted. In other words, children are throwing out the food instead of eating it.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the superintendent of Voorheesville Central School District in upstate New York reported that "apples and pears went from the tray to the trash untouched." Ironically, most detractors of the new guidelines also say that the students are hungry and aren't getting enough to eat. A solution to both of these problems suddenly becomes clear...

But seriously, we cannot expect children to switch from pudding to apples without help. We can't expect them to shift from nachos to whole-grain pasta without a blip. No one likes to be told what to eat, especially when what they've been eating was loaded with fat, sugar, salt and flavor-enhancing additives.

Here's the thing. Most children would rather not study, or do homework or puzzle out that really difficult word problem. But at school we teach them. And we don't just teach them math, science and reading. We teach them how to learn. We teach them how to inquire. We encourage curiosity and instill the habit of intellectual engagement. We don't give up on educating our children because they initially resist the difficulties of Spanish, or earth science or geometry. And we should not give up on feeding them healthy food because they initially refuse an apple.

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

Children need to learn healthy eating habits. (If they are throwing out apples, they REALLY need to learn healthy eating habits.) School is the place where we can educate them. They need daily exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins. But they also need to understand why it is important that they nourish their bodies with healthy food. Farm visits, school gardens, taste tests, cooking competitions, salad bars, Rainbow Days - there are so many fun ways to educate students about healthy food in school, that place where kids go to learn. To experience and experiment. And to open their minds to new ideas.

I think the big obstacle here is the perception that we can't feed children healthy food in school and that they won't eat it. But this perception fails our children and robs them of the opportunity to prove us wrong. We've got to give them a chance to develop the healthy eating habits that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. And we have to help them. We have to teach them. And we can't give up.

[Read: Parents, Make Back-to-School Season Healthy.]

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

Part 2 of "Back to School (Lunch) Season" - which will focus on school lunches brought from home - will appear next month.

Hungry for more? Write to 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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