Healthy Lunches, Healthy Students

Who knew the simple school lunch served in thousands of American schools would turn out to be a hotbed of controversy?

Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD

Debates among school districts, government agencies, and parents rage over everything from the presence of vending machines in schools to the ways allergic children should be protected from peanuts. And parents have emerged as the major force pushing for healthier food in U.S. school cafeterias.

"Parents play a very important role in the way school districts approach food service, says Galin McDonald, manager of food services for the school district of Bellingham, Wash. "They have been, and continue to be, a major motivator of change."

"The first thing parents should know is that the old-style lunches of fried foods and no choice of foods is a thing of the past," says McDonald.

Beginning in the 1980s, federal guidelines were made for portion sizes. No longer were grade school and high school students served the same size meals. The changes continued. By the early 1990s, lunches couldn't contain more than 30% of a child's daily requirement of fat or 10% of saturated fat. The lunches now provide at least one-third of the child's daily requirements of protein and vitamins.

To meet these requirements, lunches changed dramatically.

"We offer a far wider range of choices and vastly improved quality," says McDonald. "We have salad bars that let students select fruits and vegetables they like. We have peanut-free tables so that any student with an allergy, even those who bring lunch, can be sure not to get exposed to the allergen. It just isn't the old lunch people grew up with anymore."

"One of the great things about school food is that a parent can be sure a child has an opportunity to eat a balanced, nutritious meal," says Jan Stanton, a registered dietitian and director of public awareness for the American School Food Service Association. "The food served in schools has to meet very specific federal guidelines, which are established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

These federal rules say that a school lunch can't provide more than 30% of a child's daily requirement of fat or 10% of saturated fat. Further, the lunch must provide at least one-third of the child's daily requirements of protein and vitamins.

And all this nutrition comes at a bargain price. Depending on what part of the country you live in, lunches run anywhere from $1 a day in most elementary school to $2 a day in most high schools.

OK, so this healthy meal is placed before your child in the cafeteria at school. Whether your child will actually eat this balanced, nutritious meal without parental supervision is another matter, and one that many school food-service managers are deeply concerned about.

"What kids see modeled at home, they pick up themselves," says McDonald. "If parents make time for balanced, healthy meals, the children naturally follow suit."

That's one reason parental involvement -- both at home and at school -- is so important.

"Not every parent can come to school for a lunch, but that's one great way a parent can get involved," McDonald says. "As a food service manager, I'm always happy to make arrangements for a parent to visit at lunch. They see what the students are eating. They get to see what has changed. The student sees that eating healthy food is important to the parent. That's a powerful lesson."

Parental pressure is even forcing some changes in the widely criticized practice of having vending machines in schools, most of which sell sodas and junk food. Many schools use vending-machine proceeds to supplement after-school programs.

"More than 90% of high schools have vending machines, and that is a real problem," says Stanton. "These high-fat, salty, or sugary snacks are everything we don't want students to substitute for real food. But they make money for the schools."

While the machines are staying, parents are pushing to make changes in what the machines offer. Instead of only offering soda, some machines will have fruit juice, too. Similarly, alongside the Ding Dongs and Kit Kats, some schools are including healthier choices such as whole-grain granola bars.

"It's a start," says McDonald. "And it's parents that have the clout to keep the trend moving toward healthier foods, even if it comes one step at a time."

So what if you're making lunch at home? Here are simple food rules, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for sending a safe lunch to school:

  • Keep everything clean when packing the lunch. That not only goes for the food, but also food preparation surfaces, hands, and utensils. Use hot, soapy water. Keep family pets away from kitchen counters. Wash your hands before you prepare or eat food.
  • Keep cold foods cold in an insulated lunch box. When packing lunches, include either freezer gel packs, cold food items such as fruit, or small frozen juice packs. Place meat or egg sandwiches between cold items. Sandwiches can also be made ahead of time and kept refrigerated or frozen before placing in the lunch box.
  • Keep hot foods hot by using an insulated bottle stored in an insulated lunch box. Fill the bottle with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the hot food. Keep the insulated bottle closed until lunch time to keep the heat in.

For more information on packing safe lunches for school and work, call the USDA Hotline at 1-800-535-4555.