Let Them Eat Veggies: School Lunch Gets a Makeover

Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on October 01, 2012
From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 1, 2012 -- School lunches are getting an extreme makeover.

Gone are fried tater tots, chicken nuggets, and pepperoni pizza. In their place are heaps of whole grains, veggies, fruits, and low-fat dairy products, along with baked versions of formerly fried favorites such as chicken nuggets or fish sticks.

Students will also be seeing less salt and trans fats thanks to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. There are also calorie caps on the lunches: 650 for elementary school students, 700 for middle schoolers, and 850 for high school students.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack rolled out the new school lunch menus at the start of the 2012-2013 school year for the 32 million students who take part in the National School Lunch and obesity programs. Previous school meal standards were developed 15 years ago and did not reflect current nutritional guidelines.

The menus are intended to help stamp out childhood and teen obesity in the U.S. As it stands, one in three kids in America is overweight or obese. And diseases linked to obesity that were once seen only in adults are now increasingly being diagnosed in kids. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Not Everyone's on Board

The change has fueled some controversy. The Hunger-Free Kids Act may actually be leaving some students ... hungry.

A YouTube video that parodies the song “We Are Young” by Fun went viral. In it, Kansas teens sing “We Are Hungry" in protest of the lunch menu changes. There have also been brown bag campaigns and boycotts across the map, and a new bill before Congress that seeks to repeal the calorie caps.

“There's no question that schools should encourage healthy eating,” says Jeff Stier. He is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. But “the USDA is ... leaving active children so hungry that they tend to leave the school lunchroom to buy less nutritious and more calorie-dense foods. Ironically, the Hunger-Free Kids Act is leaving kids hungry.”

But it's a start, others say.

“We have some real problems with obesity and this didn’t start yesterday,” says Janey Thornton, PhD. She is the USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. “School lunches are not the total solution, but hopefully a small part of it that can help children ... take responsibility for what they eat and portion sizes.”

Meet the New School Lunch

So what does a new school lunch look like?

For an average high school student, an 850-calorie lunch may include two baked fish nuggets, a cup of vegetables, half a cup of mashed potatoes, one whole grain roll, and 8 ounces of fat-free milk. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, it’s all you can eat.

Schools will also be encouraged to create healthy snack programs to curb between-meal hunger pains, and parents, too, can pack healthy snacks for kids.

The new meal plan is based on the USDA's MyPlate recommendations. “Half of the plate should be fruits and vegetables instead of meat and starches,” says Erin Corrigan, RD. She is a dietitian and clinical nutrition manager at Miami Children's Hospital. “They really aren't changing what is being served as far as entrees, but they are adjusting portions and adding in fruits and vegetables. Cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, and pizza should not be staples.”

Parents Must Do Their Part at Home

Doesn’t sound so bad, so why the backlash?

Part of the resistance is that this may be the first time some kids are exposed to fruits and vegetables. “Parents should start serving healthier options at home, too,” Corrigan says. “Change can’t happen only at home or only at school.” The new school meals are designed to meet only a portion of a child's daily nutritional needs.

Ellie Hamburger, MD, also supports the school lunch makeover. She is pediatrician at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “We have been struggling with the problem of overweight and obese children for years, and when parents bring in a copy of school menus, we realized what we were up against.”

There will be an adjustment period. But “I don’t think kids will be starving or go hungry. It will actually be quite the opposite.”

Make Healthy Foods More Enticing

Organize a tasting as part of back-to-school night, a PTA meeting, or even during lunch period. “If kids try before they buy, they may be more likely to give it a shot,” says Jessica Donze Black, RD, MPH. She is the project director for the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project at the Pew Health Group.

Brian Wansink, PhD, is the co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs in Ithaca, N.Y. “We can’t just load up kids’ trays with healthy foods and expect them to gobble it all up,” he says. “It is very important for kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, but it is also important to realize that we can’t force them to do that.”

The “force-on-tray” method will increase how many vegetables kids take and eat, but it also increases how much they will waste, he says. A better bet is to make fruits look more enticing and give vegetables cool names like "big bad bean burritos."

“You have to do more than change the menu,” he says.

“Big picture, this is a good idea,” Black says. Schools that saw the changes coming had already tweaked their menus and are not experiencing any resistance from students.

See for Yourselves

Parents need to see the new lunch menus for themselves.

“Eat lunch with your child and see what is available,” Black says. Talk to food services about what has changed, and ask your children what they ate for lunch and whether or not they liked it.

Show Sources


Jeff Stier, senior fellow, the National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C.

Erin Corrigan, RD, clinical nutrition manager, Miami Children's Hospital, Miami.

Ellie Hamburger, MD, pediatrician, Children’s National medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Brian Wansink , PhD, co-director, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, Ithaca, N.Y.

Jessica Donze Black, RD, MPH, project director, Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project, the Pew Health Group, Washington D.C.

Janey Thornton, PhD, Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, USDA, Washington, D.C.

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