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School Lunches 1: Shedding Some Light on “Hot Lunch.”

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I have to admit that my 3rd grader doesn’t eat school lunches. She has tried what the kids call “hot lunch” exactly 3 times in her entire public school career. She doesn’t like them. At all. Every morning, I fix her lunch, and although I sometimes grumble a little, I am glad to get to choose what she can eat for her midday meal.

But lately, I have been thinking a lot about those hot lunches. For one thing, they feed a lot of children. Many of my daughter’s friends eat them frequently or always. In 2006, more than 30 million children in the U.S. each day ate school lunches. And the school lunch program has been all over the news lately. From downer cows that end up in our kids’ lunches to efforts in districts across the country to combat obesity and bad eating habits in school cafeterias, school lunches seem to be a metaphor for all the bigger issues about food in America today.

Depending on who you talk to, school lunches might be described as anything from a program that nourishes our kids and provides a safety net for poor children to a dumping ground for surplus commodities that promotes childhood obesity, poor health, and lifelong addictions to fast food. I’ve been wanting to write about this since the start of Eat.Drink.Better., but its been hard to know where to start.

Last Sunday, I went to a Forum titled “What’s for Lunch?” about school lunches and farm-to-school programs, which I hoped would clarify things. What it clarified was this: school lunch programs vary by school, district, and state. The federal program does affect what your child is likely to be offered at school, but there are a lot of other factors too. Every evil and inspiring story about food imaginable you can probably find somewhere in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The thing that really struck me was this: school lunches are a reflection of our society, and our society’s relationship to food. And right now, that relationship is kind of crazy.

So this is the first of several posts on the national school lunch program, explaining some of what I’ve learned about how we feed our kids in school at lunch time, and why.

Today, some basic facts:

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program which provides “nutritionally balanced” low cost or free lunches. School districts that participate get cash subsidies and donated commodities from the USDA for each meal they serve. They must offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children. And they must meet federal nutritional guidelines (two sets) that, according to some, make it difficult to provide healthy affordable meals.

Who qualifies for free or reduced price meals? Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level qualify for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent qualify for reduced price meals, which can cost them no more than 40 cents. (This information comes from the Pennsylvania Department of Education fact sheet on the school lunch program.) In Oregon, where I live, 53% of children in public schools qualify for free or reduced price meals. The other 47% may buy the meals for full price. At my daughter’s school, full price lunches cost $1.75.

How much money do schools get from the USDA per child? If the food served to our children is low quality, a major reason is cost. Here is what the federal government gives schools per meal: $2.47 per free lunch, $2.07 per reduced price lunch, and .23 cents per paid lunch.

Beyond these basic facts, the program varies by state and district. Many parents across the country have protested the poor quality of the food in the NSLP, and many have been working for healthier, tastier, fresher food in school lunches. Next time I’ll focus on some examples of inspiring efforts to improve school lunches, including state legislation, farm-to-school projects, school gardens, and chefs taking over as school lunch coordinators.

5 comments
  1. Green Diva meg

    Great post Carla! I have been a lunch-maker for my kids for many years. I’ve not been as active in making change as I have wanted to be, but there are a couple of phenomenal women who have made a film – Two Angry Moms that was launched this year. It covers this topic very well and offers some examples of how to get more active and help to create the change that is so important here. i believe they also have a non-profit organization. here’s the link http://www.angrymoms.org/

  2. Carla Wise

    Yes, the two angry moms web site is worth a visit! I linked to it in the post, in the last paragraph “have protested the poor quality.” I am looking forward to writing more about this, as there is so much “juicy’ stuff to talk about. Thanks for the comment! Carla

  3. Kelli Best-Oliver

    I teach, and the food they serve our kids is disgusting and horrible for them. This year, they hired a person with some catering experience, and the food has improved a bit. I at least see green things on the plate now and again. But, too often, everything on the plate is beige or yellow/brown–hamburger, tator tots, canned peaches, etc. The salad bar only has iceberg, sunflower seeds, croutons, and dressing–no other veggies.

    Of course, everything is served on styrofoam with plastic utensils. I’ve tried to get things going with at least reusable trays, but it all comes down to money, and I work in a district were 60% of kids are on free/reduced lunch. It’s sad, because when my kids aren’t here at school, they’re eating at fast food places.

  4. Seth

    Carla, great idea for a series…. This issue first struck me as important when I heard from my daughter that her school was offering Top Ramen at the cafeteria, and the sad irony was that my daughter’s health/nutrition class was just prior to the lunch period! To me, this says a lot about the disconnect between what we portray as important in our society, and what we actually end up doing.

    So, I think this is an important issue too and I’m looking forward to reading your upcoming posts!

  5. Amy Dawson

    I really think that the schools and government are just trying too hard with this lunch program! My kids rarely buy lunch, and when they do I know they will come home more hungry and less satisfied, despite consuming many more calories than in their packed lunches. When my daughter started school, we got really into lunch – my husband works at home and we had been able to enjoy 3 meals together each day until Kindergarten started. Suddenly, we had to make sure our little darling ate well away from us. We started with a list of foods which evolved into a website over the years. Each item has nutrition information and a picture and you can search the foods in a bunch of different ways. And, our favorite part is that YOU can submit a food to us and let us calculate the nutrition for you. Check it out when you are preparing lunch for your kids (and you) – and have fun :)

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