As a school employee, I get to take my turn at cafeteria duty every day. It’s not much fun, but I do get to see what kids do and do not eat. Over the past few years, I’ve seen good progress toward healthier school meals. Our food service department has been cutting back on packaged junk-type foods, increasing fruits and vegetables, and adding a variety of local fruits and vegetables.
And this year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) changed its requirements for school lunches.
The final standards make the same kinds of practical changes that many parents are already encouraging at home, including:
- Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week; • Substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods;
- Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;
- Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size; and
- Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.
So far this year, I’ve noticed that a packaged dried fruit mix is being served with most lunches, and that only unflavored milk (2% or fat-free) is offered. The fresh, local fruits and vegetables are continuing to be offered in the variety bar (kids choose which items they want). The entrees appear to be the same as before, and I haven’t noticed portion sizes shrinking.
However, there are reports, like this one in the New York Times, of trouble in other school districts, especially at the high school level. Students don’t want to eat fruits and vegetables, and they feel they’re not getting enough to eat.
I don’t doubt these reports. Teens are hungry, and they love junk food. But the schools are required to offer them a minimum of 750 calories as lunch, so they’re not starving, either. I don’t know. I don’t have a teen yet, and I don’t have boys, who I understand will eat several times their weight in food. Maybe the teen meals do need some adjustment.
The other issue being reported is food waste — students are simply throwing out the fruits and vegetables. There’s a picture with the NYT article of a garbage can full of foam trays (yuck) containing leftover vegetables, which is supposed to illustrate this.
Here’s my take on food waste:
Yes, some kids will throw away the vegetables. That’s just how it is. However, I’ve also seen kids taking and eating fresh spinach, asparagus and watermelon – even when they didn’t know what was until that very moment. NOBODY eats the waterlogged canned spinach. The dried fruit mix has taken some time to be accepted. But the fruits and vegetables are being eaten by at least some kids.
Also, many kids over-fill their trays. So even if they ate some fruits and vegetables, there are a lot left on the tray. We try to monitor and discourage this, but since they serve themselves, and we can’t watch every kid 100% of the time, it still happens.
So at the elementary level, I think it’s working. And maybe when these kids are in middle and high school, there won’t be so many complaints.