Mutiny in the lunchroom

In “We Are Hungry,” one of the latest You Tube videos to gain widespread attention, high school students are turned away empty-handed from second helpings in the cafeteria, collapse during volleyball practice and daydream in class about their mother’s mac ‘n’ cheese.

There’s a mutiny brewing against the increasing regulations and restrictions governing what’s served to kids in the school lunchroom. The target of much of this groundswell of ire? The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which limits school lunches to 850 calories, reduces carbohydrates and emphasizes loading up on fruits and vegetables. The standards took effect in August – and for many kids and their parents, it has been a rude awakening.

The protest video was made by students at Wallace County High School in Sharon Spring, Kan., who’ve had it with restrictive school lunches, which they say leaves them hungry and struggling to function in school.

Here’s how the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act has changed school meals: Before, lunch for an elementary student might have consisted of a slice of cheese pizza, half a cup of Tater Tots with ketchup, one-fourth of a cup of canned pineapple and eight ounces of low-fat milk. The same lunch, revamped: a slice of whole-wheat cheese pizza, half a cup of baked sweet potato fries, half a cup of applesauce, a quarter-cup of raw cherry tomatoes and low-fat milk. (Click here for other examples.)

“The size has gone down and I leave lunch hungrier than before I tried to eat anything,” one student lamented online at “The food they offer at our school is NOT ENOUGH!” another student declared.

A school cafeteria manager weighed in at an online forum with her frustration over the new guidelines. Schools are being asked to introduce foods such as tofu, hummus and more beans, and the kids won’t eat them, she wrote. “They have all gone into the trash.”

Even some teachers are speaking up. Linda O’Connor, a high school English teacher in Sharon Spring who wrote the lyrics for “We Are Hungry,” told U.S. News and World Report, “I have been a teacher for 20 years, and this is the worst that it’s ever been. Our kids eat at 12:06 p.m., and they are hungry by 1:30 p.m.”

What’s a healthy number of daily calories for a child or teen? According to USDA dietary guidelines, a moderately active girl between the ages of 9 and 13 should consume 1,600 to 2,000 calories a day. An active teenage boy, on the other hand, needs 2,800 to 3,200 calories a day.

If you do the math, an 850-calorie school lunch would fulfill 25 to 50 percent of these needs, depending on the student.

You could argue there’s nothing wrong with serving more fruits and vegetables in the school cafeteria and downsizing portions into something less super-sized. Over time, kids and their parents will get used to it. After all, the Kansas students in the “We Are Hungry” video aren’t literally starving – and what about those stashes of chips and other snacks in their lockers?

The other side of this argument is that kids are a captive audience and one size shouldn’t fit all. Should students be expected (some would say forced) to eat school lunches they might truly dislike or not be able to tolerate? I’ve heard anecdotally about kids suffering through intestinal turmoil because their digestion is unaccustomed to the whole-wheat fare served at school.

Attempts to put more healthful, exotic food on the menu can flop when kids won’t eat it, as the Los Angeles school system discovered last year when it introduced entrees such as vegetarian curry and quinoa salad. Many students refused to eat it; instead, they loaded up their backpacks with snacks and soda. Meanwhile, uneaten food ended up in the trash. And what about kids for whom school lunch might be the most substantial meal they eat all day?

Finally, the evidence is mixed on whether healthier school lunches actually make a difference in what kids eat. In one of the largest studies to date, the impact was moderate at best. Other studies have found that simply redesigning the lunch menu isn’t enough, and that efforts need to be accompanied by other components such as nutrition, family education, activities that engage children’s interest in the food being served, and even the return of recess and gym class.

How about it, readers? Do you think the new school lunch guidelines have gone too far?

2 thoughts on “Mutiny in the lunchroom

  1. When I initially read the guidelines from the Moorhead school district my reaction was three fold. First, I have a son who is 6′ 3″ and trim, but it was clear the meals described were nothing caloriewise compared to what he actually eats. But, being active he stays trim. Second, my wife and I are diabetic and it was clear the meals described would be unhealthy for us…one key ingredient restricted too much…protein. Recently educational research found even a spoonful of peanut butter as protein before school increased test scores, alertness, etc. One size does not fit all when it comes to school lunches. Obesity in America? Do we really think school lunches have been the culprit in the past?

  2. My parents could not afford school lunch all that often and we didn’t qualify for reduced price meals, so we brought lunch from home a lot. We did get to pick lunch once a week and I remember it being tator tot hotdish, chicken nuggets, typical foods kids like. The difference – we were much more active 20-25 years ago. We did not spend time inside with computers or video games, we would leave on our bikes for an entire day and be home at meal time – we never had them – and so eating that school lunch did not affect kids’ health or weight as much. I think that kids should be eating healthier, they aren’t nearly as active. And if they can’t get it at home, they need to be open to trying it at school. A lunch that provides 50% of your daily intake? I think that’s enough to keep kids going through the day.

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