School Lunch Reform and a Food Critic’s Take on Chicken Nuggets

chicken nuggets

Chicken nuggets. Taco salad. Pizza. Cartons of milk. Hot dogs. Mystery meat. These foods were all staples of my elementary and high school cafeterias, despite clear guidelines about the nutritional benefits for school meals. Efforts to reform school lunch got a boost Tuesday when Institute of Medicine of the National Academies released “School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children,” a report of recommendations for how to reform school lunch.

The report was requested by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in order to help align the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs with the most recent set of dietary guidelines for Americans. Current school lunches must meet guidelines set in 1995, but nutritional knowledge has progressed since then, and the report tries to address those changes.

In general, the report recommends “increasing the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, setting a minimum and maximum level of calories, and focusing more on reducing saturated fat and sodium.” Another switch from current practice is to stop focusing on Nutrition Standards (requirements about calories, fat, protein, and some vitamins and minerals), and instead focus on Nutrient Targets. Nutrient Targets account for 24 nutrients and dietary parts that can be used as guidelines for deciding the amount and type of foods to offer students.

At this point, I’m not sure what will happen to the recommendations. In a release, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said,

Experts at USDA are engaged in a thorough review of the IOM recommendations and will develop a proposed rule to determine the best ways to improve the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program based on IOM’s final report. Stakeholders and the public will have ample opportunity to comment on USDA’s proposed rule.

But the USDA isn’t just responsible for school lunches and nutrition — the USDA also oversees agriculture, food safety, rural development, and other projects. I can’t imagine there isn’t political pressure from industrial agriculture about what does and doesn’t go into our school lunches. It will be interesting to see what the impacts of this report are and whether it helps school lunches focus on more sustainable and healthy options for students.

What Does School Lunch Look Like Now?

The news story that actually inspired me to look into what was happening with school lunch reform was one from my local newspaper, The Capital Times. A former restaurant critic and food writer who just recently switched beats to cover children and education brought her restaurant critic skills to school lunches with predictably disgusting and disappointing results.

Reporter/critic Susan Troller sampled lunches from elementary, middle, and high school cafeterias to get a sense of what students are eating. A local taco salad received a “C+ or B-” while an effort at vegetable soup only earned a “D.” One lunch of chicken nuggets, rice and corn, and “about a third of a cup of something that looked remarkably like canned cat food” (it turned out to be cookie dough) got an especially critical review:

I’m not a chicken nugget fan under any circumstances, and these had all the appeal of breaded cardboard, with an unpleasant aftertaste. The carrots were slimy and it was hard to get past the appearance and texture of the cookie dough.

It’s hard not to feel a little bit sorry for the students eating school lunch as you read the remainder of Troller’s article. My own experience confirms that school lunch can leave a lot to be desired, but the release of the Institute of Medicine’s report might signal that change is on the horizon.

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Image Credit: Yoppy on Flickr via a Creative Commons License

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1 thought on “School Lunch Reform and a Food Critic’s Take on Chicken Nuggets”

  1. The IOM is a great science based report. It’s giving good advice on how to move a school lunch program that was created to aid the problems of an under nourished population in the 40’s, and move it towards the health needs of today, which is more about reducing chronic disease, diabetes and obesity. I hope USDA implements this report and hope congress will better fund school lunch programs when the reauthorize the act next year.

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