Oh how happy I was to see the new book Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Heath by Amy Kalafa, producer of the award-winning documentary “Two Angry Moms.” I get on my soapbox all too often about this very issue, because I have one child who is so sensitive to food that teachers can tell if he ate a cookie at lunch, and the other possesses about as much will power as I have when it comes to saying no to cinnamon-flavored soft pretzels.
Why, in the world, would they offer seven-year-olds the option to buy Klondike bars, cinnamon-flavored soft-pretzels, Doritos, and Gatorade? I think the answer has to do with budgets.
But in the process we are raising fat kids whose academic progress is compromised by all the crap they shove in their mouths at lunch. Plus, those foods should be reserved for parents to give as bribing material. Without junk food, we are left with lame “no TV or video game” bribes, and in our house, food is much more effective. (I do realize all parenting books preach against this very thing, but you have to go with what works.)
Ahem. Sorry about that. At any rate, Kalafa has penned an important, provocative book that can’t help but get parents thinking about the nutrition of our offspring, especially in a culture fighting a war against childhood obesity.
She first lists the scary facts, and I mean, scary:
By their own assessment, our government determined that American schools are flunking lunch: A 2007 School Nutrition Dietary Assessment concluded that the vast majority of schools in America exceed USDA guidelines for the quantities of saturated fat, total fat and sodium in school lunches.
The surplus beef and poultry that the USDA offers as free commodity items to our school systems are held to a lower standard than fast-food chains like McDonald’s. In the past decade, the USDA paid $145 million for pet-food grade “spent-hen meat” that went into the school meals program.
The average dollar amount spent per school lunch nationwide is a mere $1, 25 cents of which is spent on milk. Factor in the minimum number of calories that school lunches need to provide our children with that remaining 75 cents, and it’s easy to see why many cafeterias wind up offering cheap, high-calorie foods like Pop Tarts, chocolate milk and pizza.
Even free water is not a given in many school lunch rooms across the country: As bottled water brings in revenue for schools—not to mention the food management companies that supply them with goods to sell in cafeterias—many schools’ water fountains have fallen into disrepair.
The kids who DON’T buy lunch at school are healthier—and they perform better academically: A 2008 study found that children who bought lunch at school were at an increased risk for being overweight. The study also found that students with a higher consumption of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fruits and vegetables performed better on a standardized literacy assessment, independent of socioeconomic factors. (Science Daily, Mar. 22, 2008).
The average kid will eat 3,000 school lunches between kindergarten and 12th grade. Replacing the chemical- fat-sugar-sodium-filled fare most schools are serving for lunch with nutritious, wholesome food could have an enormous impact on our children’s health — and their futures: A 2008 study of 1349 students in grades 4 through 6 from 10 schools in a US city with a high proportion of children eligible for free and reduced-priced school meals participated in a multi-component School Nutrition Policy Initiative. Significantly fewer children in the intervention schools (7.5%) than in the control schools (14.9%) became overweight after 2 years.
Alas! Kalafa doesn’t leave us defenseless. She’s got a whole slew of things we can do to fight back, if we care to do more than just gripe. Most require a bit of time and sweat, of course. But this is a cause well worth fighting for. Among some of her suggestions are these:
1. Request a copy of your school’s wellness policy.
As per the federal Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, all US schools must have a Wellness Policy. This policy must include nutrition guidelines for all foods available on the school grounds. The law also mandates that the committee created to write the Policy include parents.
2. Rally your team.
Get involved with your school’s Wellness Committee if there is one—if there isn’t one, talk to other parents and members of your community interested in good food and nutrition and form your coalition.
3. Team up with food service staff.
Make an appointment to have lunch with your kid at school and to meet the food service staff (it will also give you an “on the ground” sense of what’s being served in the lunch room). Be sure and let them know you appreciate their work as well as how much you value good daily nutrition for your child. Be tactful. Inspire vs. demand the changes you’re seeking.
4. Food for thought.
Says Kalafa: “The more we teach our children about their food, the better equipped they will be to make decisions about what they want to eat and where that food comes from.” As school is where children do a great deal of their learning (not to mention where they do a good portion of their eating), food should be a part of your school’s curriculum.
5. Plant the seeds for good nutrition.
Help show kids where healthy food actually comes from by starting a school garden with fruits, vegetables, and herbs. If kids are involved in actually growing the healthy food that’s served in their lunch room, they’ll be more inclined to eat it!
I would add one more: model good eating–eat nutritious foods yourself. Kids learn more effectively from modeling than teaching. Even if they go through years of stuffing their faces with pop tarts, chances are that they will eventually eat like their parents, because that’s what they know, and what they know is often more comfortable than what they don’t know. So the next time you want to sit down with a bag of Doritos, ask yourself if you want to teach that behavior to your seven-year-old.