How can we get kids to eat healthier school lunches? Here are a few ideas

This guest post is from Elizabeth Poisson, a recent graduate from Central Michigan University with a B.S. in Dietetics and Biomedical Sciences. Poisson has experienced firsthand the benefits of eating a nutritious diet and participating in regular exercise. She is working to become a registered dietitian.

When you send your children off to school for the day, you hope that they are going to a place that is as concerned with your child’s well being as you are. This includes well being in the classroom, on the playground, and especially in the cafeteria. It is no secret that childhood obesity is a global issue, and part of the contributing factor to this problem is what children are eating while at school.

Although there have been efforts to improve school lunches, unfortunately these efforts have been far from successful. Currently, 99 percent of all public schools in the U.S. participate in the National School Lunch Program, which has certain nutritional requirements in order to qualify for reimbursement by the government. However, according to a study conducted by the USDA, a staggering 94 percent of schools serve lunches that fail to meet USDA standards for a healthy school meal.

Why is this a problem? Food consumed at school represents 40 to 50 percent of children’s daily caloric intake, and what children eat greatly impacts their growth and development.

If it were up to me, here’s how I would try to solve the problem.

Creative solutions needed

Many schools have taken on extra costs in order to improve the quality and nutritional value of the meals they serve their students, while other schools have found a way to equip their students with the knowledge to make sound nutrition decisions. Here are a few examples:

  • Gardening programs: Programs like the G2 Good Gardens program, implemented by the Detroit Public Schools, use school greenhouses and gardens to enhance learning in subjects like science, technology, engineering and math. Programs like these not only help to promote health and nutrition, but could also help to provide fresh produce for school lunches.
  • Reviving ‘Home Economics’: No, not the stereotypical baking and sewing home economics, but a modern class that introduces children to important life skills like cooking homemade meals and food preservation techniques. Incorporating nutritional education would also be a great improvement to current school curricula. These programs would equip children with the knowledge and skills to avoid fast-food chains and convenience stores for their meals. Home ec programs could also alleviate demands on the cafeteria by providing students with the opportunity to eat the meals they make in class.
  • Increasing awareness: Changing the school lunch program is not enough. After all, many people argue that simply offering healthy meals doesn’t guarantee that children will want to eat them, as celebrity chef and “Food Revolution” television host Jamie Oliver discovered at a school in West Virginia. Attaching a healthy message to foods and the schoolwork already in place could improve the chances that children choose nutritionally sound foods. Signs promoting health benefits that are relevant to children should be included; for example, a sign with chicken that says “I contain protein to help build strong muscles.” And in teachers’ lesson plans, instead of Sally going to the store to buy five candy bars, why not send a better message to our children by saying Sally went to the store to buy five pomegranates?

No cheap fix

Many people are opposed to improving school lunches, not because they aren’t concerned with the health of our children, but because of the cost. What people need to realize is that if obesity continues to increase, it is estimated that the U.S. will spend $344 billion on health care costs directly attributed to obesity by 2018. We can either invest in preventing obesity from occurring in the first place, or continue to shell out billions of dollars to treat the proven life-threatening illnesses that accompany obesity.

The underlying message here is that as a nation we need to be more concerned with the health of our people than the depths of our pockets.

What do you think about my proposed remedies? How would you improve the nation’s school lunch program?

Photo by USDAgov

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