-by Trina Pruitt, parent and Go Public contributor
I love cooking for my family. It is therapeutic for me to read cookbooks and experiment with food. I am always looking up healthy recipes for kids and healthy food near me. I follow food trends like the Keto diet and Paleo diet, as well as trending sustainability methods and popular cooking techniques like the sous vide.
So when I read that National School Lunch Week was coming soon, of course my interest was piqued. In all my food-obsessed adult years, I had never given much thought to school lunches. However, don’t we all remember those school lunches from when we were children? What about the “Friday-is-pizza-day!” mad dash to be first in the lunch line, or walking by the cafeteria and smelling food and every kid discussing what we thought, or hoped, it would be? Those memories are crystal clear to me.
My kids have also always been school lunch eaters, mostly because I don’t like packing lunches at 7 am. And one of the first questions I ask after picking them up from school is consistently, “What did you have for lunch?” I then get the play-by-play of what was offered, what was chosen, what was enjoyed, and what was ignored. However, in all these conversations I have never thought to really look into school lunches or learn more about the effort and attention that goes into making them.
School Lunch Week
I began to research the glory of the school lunch to share here in honor of National School Lunch Week, which is celebrated this month from October 12th through the 16th. There is an extensive amount of information on the importance of school lunch services in public schools. I have broken down some of the most interesting facts and trending questions below. My hope is that it helps to show the dedication and commitment that our school districts have for feeding our children and keeping students healthy and prepared to learn. And you’ll be happy to know that “Friday-is-pizza-day!” is still inciting the same level of excitement as it always did.
WHAT ARE OUR SCHOOL LUNCH AND BREAKFAST PROGRAMS?
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program in public schools. This program aims to protect kids against hunger by providing nutritionally balanced, low-cost, and free lunches to children every school day.
The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 created the School Breakfast Program after the success of the NSLP. Administered by the USDA, the Texas Dept of Agriculture’s School Breakfast Program provides a healthy breakfast for kids across the state. The program encourages the consumption of locally produced agricultural commodities and foods. Texas state law requires that schools must participate in the School Breakfast Program if at least 10 percent of their students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals.
WHY ARE SCHOOL LUNCHES NEEDED?
According to an article by Feeding America, the USDA reports that around 35 million Americans struggle with hunger. Every community in the country has families who are challenged with food insecurity, and households with children are more likely to be food-insecure. Additionally, children who receive school breakfast and lunch are less likely to experience hunger and more likely to consume fruit, vegetables, and milk throughout the day.
ARE SCHOOL LUNCHES HEALTHY?
The School Nutrition Association states that schools must follow National School Lunch Program standards, which include:
Schools must offer students a variety of fruits and vegetables with every lunch, and students are required to take at least one half-cup serving of fruits or vegetables.
At least half of the grains used in school meals must be whole grain-rich.
Meals cannot contain added trans-fat and with no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat.
Every school meal offers one cup of fat-free or 1% milk, and free drinking water must be available in the cafeteria.
Not only are the school lunches healthy, but schools are also helping students stay healthy and protected during the COVID pandemic by:
Increasing sanitizing stations
Frequent sanitization of tables, countertops, etc
Implementing social distancing markers on floors
Spacing tables and chairs at least 6 feet apart
School Lunch vs Packed Lunch
The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior published an interesting study comparing homemade lunches to school-made lunches. They discovered that packed lunches overall had more fat, sugar, and calories than school lunches. The school lunches also provided more protein, sodium, calcium, and fiber than lunches from home. (CBS News- Who Makes a Healthier Lunch)
Texas Farm Fresh Initiative
School lunches are mostly locally sourced. The U.S. Department of Agriculture works with the Texas Department of Agriculture on the Farm Fresh program. The Texas Farm Fresh Initiative engages young minds to make strong, sustainable connections to local foods, farmers, and ranchers.
Eddie Longoria of the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated, “We want to make sure all children in the state of Texas have access to food that’s grown right in their backyard.”
The Central Texas School Garden Network highlights the growing popularity and benefits of school gardens. Schools can have flower gardens, herb gardens, and food gardens to use as a hands-on outdoor classroom.
In some schools, students help to plant food gardens to produce vegetables and fruits. The food is then harvested and used in the school meal programs. Research shows that school food gardens have positive impacts on students’ health, behavior, and academic outcomes. They can also build and strengthen relationships within the school and community. (Sustainable Food Center)
Agricorps lists a standard school garden curriculum for teachers and schools. The curriculum teaches gardening as well as biological theory and agriculture sciences like plant cultivation techniques. School gardens provide engaging learning activities and community involvement.
“Junk Food” in Schools
Should junk food be banned in schools? The answer is complicated. People define “junk food” in different ways, and there are varying degrees of what each person considers to be healthy. Also, children that are deprived of less healthy foods might overindulge when they have the opportunity to eat those foods. (British Journal of Nutrition) Instead of teaching kids that certain foods are bad, schools with programs like Farm Fresh and school gardens can teach students to read and understand nutrition labels. As a result, they can learn the importance of making healthy food choices for themselves.
However, some families might not be able to afford fresh foods and must rely on less expensive prepackaged products. Registered dietician and pediatric nutrition expert, Corinne Eisler, says “It’s not a lack of knowledge; it’s a lack of money. A child should never be shamed because they don’t have an optimal eating plan.” (Todays Parent)
Although the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act allowed the USDA to make reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving nutrition standards, those reforms have changed recently. The current administration has loosened certain standards for schools to have more control over dietary decisions.
While the junk food debate continues, in the end, parents should be the ones to decide what is best for their children. They know what their child will agree to eat and they know what their family can provide.
HOW DO SCHOOL NUTRITION SERVICES HANDLE ALLERGIES?
When it comes to nutrition for kids, our public school districts provide all children nutritious meals, even those children with dietary restrictions. Sharon Glosson, the Executive Director of School Nutrition in North East ISD explains, “The number of students with food allergies has grown tremendously over the last 20 years. Cafeteria Managers and District Dietitians work together to accommodate student medical needs so that all students can benefit from school meals. Communication between parents, students, school nurses, and cafeteria staff is necessary in order to keep students safe.”
Defining Food Issues
Food allergies occur when the immune system reacts to a substance in a food or group of foods. The immune system identifies a specific protein as harmful, and the body creates antibodies to fight it off. Symptoms usually include skin rashes and breathing challenges.
Food intolerances relate to digestion. Individuals with food intolerances may be able to eat small amounts of specific foods with no symptoms. However, if they ingest too much, their body reacts.
Food sensitivities can mean anything, and sometimes is used interchangeably with food intolerance, Other times, it is used as a phrase that includes both food allergies and intolerances. Food sensitivity tests are cell-based blood tests that assess changes in white blood cells when exposed to food antigens. (Eat Right.org)
School Lunch Dietary Information
Public schools post daily meals and menus on their websites so that parents and students can prepare ahead of time. Therefore, children can see what their options are and make safe choices in the lunchline.
The menu schedule from Greenwood Elementary School in Klein ISD is extremely informative and interactive. Parents can simply select the appropriate allergens they want their child to avoid, and the calendar menu automatically crosses off the menu items that the child should avoid. For example, a child with lactose intolerance and a tree nut allergy might have a menu that looks like this.
Some schools might release detailed dietary information on certain foods that contain allergens, like this Gluten-Free Entree List from North East ISD. For students on a strict gluten-free diet due to celiac disease, this type of communication is imperative for the child’s health and safety.
HOW ARE HEALTHY MEALS FOR KIDS IN SCHOOL BENEFICIAL?
The National Education Association describes some of the many benefits of school lunches:
Students that are fed at school are less likely to be tardy, absent, or repeat a grade.
Children who eat school breakfasts tend to achieve higher grades and test scores.
Students who eat at school exhibit fewer behavioral and psychological problems.
Public schools’ meal programs are an invaluable service to our students and families. During National School Lunch Week we honor the work of the government, school districts, nutrition staff, and cafeteria workers who continue to feed our children. A regular routine of nutritious meals creates a solid base for learning for the many children who depend on it.