Chicken wing dings with hot sauce, ranch potato wedges, breadsticks, fruit cocktail and chocolate milk – this is what America is serving its children for lunch. And let’s not forget the fast food pizza that is served each week.
School lunch programs have been under scrutiny for years and questioned on their nutritional quality. Each meal is ladled with heavily salted, high sugar, processed heat-’n’-eat foods. Potatoes and corn are often the only vegetable rotated throughout the week, and at least one item is deep fried.
Six years ago, the Let’s Move! campaign stepped up to change school meals. First Lady Michelle Obama began Let’s Move! to help kids and families lead healthier lives and combat childhood obesity. The initiatives focus on matching school lunch programs to national nutrition standards. These include Salad Bars to School, which brings fresh vegetables and fruits to over two million kids, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act that provides free lunches to over thirty million kids, and the Chef’s Move to Schools Program, bringing chefs into classrooms for fun food education.
Debra Eschmeyer, Executive Director for Let’s Move!, and President Obama’s Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy, spoke of these successes at TEDxManhattan 2015. Serving a nutritional school lunch is met with much adversity, from tiny budgets to legislation that encourages highly processed foods in the cafeteria line. Eschmeyer calls out government for being far too fiscally conservative in lunch programs. She says, “By 2018, we’ll be spending over 350 billion a year on treating diet related diseases. By 2030, that’s half a trillion dollars.” The country cannot afford to continue feeding our children unhealthy food. A small investment of vegetables and fruit will save the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars in the long term.
Then there is the education component. Simply having access to nutritious food does not necessarily equate to healthier kids. Palates, opinions and stigmas have to change. Highly processed foods are engrained in American culture and many kids have never tasted a variety of vegetables. Children receive the majority of their calories from grain-based desserts, pizza, soda and sports drinks, and bread.
Advertising isn’t helping either. Over $2 billion is spent each year on child-directed food and beverage ads. Kids want to eat trendy foods. Broccoli does not have a cool cartoon championing it’s deliciousness, so kids are likely to ignore it. Let’s Move! launched a campaign to change this too, the FNV campaign that partners with influential celebrities like Nick Jonas to promote fruits and vegetables.
The White House is also engaging parenting bloggers, writers and doctors to get on board their initiatives. This March, they hosted 150 influencers to celebrate the anniversary of Let’s Move! And each year the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge invites kids all over the US to develop a recipe for a chance to attend the Kid’s State Dinner, where their meal will be served at the White House.
One of the biggest challenges to improving school lunches lies in government legislation. Eshmeyer says in her TEDxManhattan talk that it is “not a bipartisan issue. There is nothing political about feeding our children nutritious food.” Yet, every five years the National School Lunch Program is reviewed and new guidelines are put into practice that most often benefit processed food companies. Small successes were made this past January, requiring eighty percent of the grains to be whole grain and a continued reduction of sodium. What’s discouraging though is a past mandate that required every child to take a fruit or vegetable with their meal. Kids are unreceptive and most of the food ends up in the trash.
With little more than a dollar per meal, schools do not have the funds to support healthier cafeterias. Nor are they single handedly capable of expanding child palates. It takes comprehensive partnerships to change our nation’s food environment. Parents, community leaders, elected officials and all citizens have to work together to change the unhealthy norm.
The goal is to go from fried wing dings to something more balanced, like a whole wheat hummus wrap with carrots and cheese, cucumber slices, and fresh melon with a glass of milk.
Michelle Obama is continuing the work of Let’s Move! after her family leaves the White House. She says, “this issue is the rest-of-my-life kind of time frame.” She believes progress can be made through passion and there is a role for anyone who wants to help. Let’s Move! offers resources that guide you through beginning a school garden or revamping cafeteria menus, and offers grants through the HealthierUS Schools Challenge. Just one concerned parent could be the catalyst that reinvents a school’s nutrition.
Brittany Barton is the creative behind SparkleKitchen.com. She offers real food recipes, sustainable living guidance and inspiration for others to become more sparkly versions of themselves.