There is a major change at our house tomorrow.
On what will be his 15th birthday,our son starts high school. He attends a small, rural school in North Dakota with 19 kids total in his class. There will be one new teacher for him to meet, maybe a few new students and he will move down the hall to the high school wing of the one school building where all kids Pre-K through Grade 12 attend in our small town. But that is not the major change for Hunter, our son.
Instead for the first time since kindergarten, Hunter will be bringing his lunch from home to school and not eating hot lunch, served by the school cook who has cooked at the school since my husband attended there.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) which administers the federal school lunch program has changed the nutritional guidelines of what all children in public school and a part of the federal school lunch program can have. You can read the USDA School Lunch Guidelines for yourself. You also can read the before and after menu suggestions from these guidelines.
The biggest change and impact for our son is the reduced protein. For grades 9-12, the total protein for the 5 day school week allowed is 10-12 oz. and less for younger students. Hunter’s reaction when I told him this change was “Mom! That is like two bites for me. I am going to starve.”
I understand this is an attempt to address childhood obesity. I understand this is an attempt to bring more fresh vegetables, fruits and whole grains into children’s diets. I understand our son is not your average sized kid. He’s big for his age and the size of an above average sized man at 6’5″ and 205 lbs. He cannot get enough calories for his size and activity level from the new USDA guidelines.
|Fresh picked from our family garden
At home, my children receive a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, lentils, dairy and meats. I hold myself accountable as the primary food purchaser at our home and primary cook that feeds our family to make sure our kids are given food choices and a balanced diet. We have the income to do this for our family. However, many do not. Many children receive the most calories and healthy food in their day at school from the USDA school lunch program. Children need all food groups daily to have enough energy to focus, learn and be active.
My kids don’t always appreciate food variety. I still ask them to try it. For example, the grilled eggplant I tried last week was a total flop with my kids and husband. But everyone tried it. On the other hand, my family has learned to tolerate and maybe even appreciate that I sneak extra vegetables into almost every recipe, bake with ground flax seed and whole wheat flour and add pinto or black beans to numerous dishes.
We eat yogurt and cheese for snacks alongside berries and bananas. We drink skim milk at evening family meals. We eat a wide array of lean meats. A majority of the time, we eat together, as a family with home cooked meals.
|I asked Hunter to bring cherry tomatoes in his lunch.
He tried one and this was his reaction.
At home, if my kids try the eggplant and don’t like it, they have a choice to eat something else. At school, under the new USDA guidelines, its eat it or waste it and be hungry, unless they pay more for additional bread or a second meal.
My children are also active. We exercise as a family as much as possible. Our son participates in four sports, one for each season of the year. Screen time from television to the iPad is limited to 30 minutes on school nights and often even that is not utilized. I think thousands of children across America do not have activity in their life. They do not have limits on technology time.
Why does our family’s diet and activity matter to our son’s school lunch?
Individuals have to be accountable for their behavior. In this instance, it’s eating and activity. Childhood obesity is not the fault of our school lunches. It’s an entire culture that needs to change.
If our school tries to change our school lunch program on our own, in the manner we think is best for our small, rural school and we do not follow the USDA regulations, we will lose our federal school lunch funding. That would hurt the nearly 40% of the our student body that qualifies for free and reduced school lunch. We need solutions. This is not a one size fits all issue.
I am not a dietician. I don’t have a single solution. But I would like to see:
1. A variety of foods be given to all school children from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats. Let the kids have the choice. Have everyone try jicama as the USDA menu suggests but then also have lean meat in the bean and cheese burritos on Monday so the kids have the energy to focus, learn and be active. Lean sandwich meat on whole grain bread for sandwiches should be an option daily.
My son eats during the noon hour and after school has a two-hour minimum practice. He needs options, variety and balance in his diet. I am not suggesting everyone gets to drink Kool-Aid and eat Pringles at lunch. But we need variety that does not discriminate against a child’s size or income. Because if you have more money, you can buy a second lunch. But if you don’t, you cannot as my friend Val pointed out in School Lunch: NOT the key to obesity.
2. Give schools more local control of their school lunch dollars and budget. I think our school cook of 30 years with proper training from possibly our state program knows how best to feed our school children in North Dakota then somebody sitting behind a desk in Washington D.C. I might be wrong but I don’t think everyone is created equal in what we eat yet we need a system that accommodates all children’s dietary needs. There is variety in the caloric needs for different people every day. There are different socio-economic factors in different geographic areas across our country impact what we eat already. This fall in Tennessee they might be eating okra from their school garden for lunch and we might be eating frozen green beans raised in our school garden earlier this summer in North Dakota.
I don’t know how the federal dollars work exactly. But I know school districts should be able to decide what to do their with meat, like keep it as whole chicken breasts and not have it made into chicken nuggets. And I know our school doesn’t have that control. Can that be changed? Only if we speak out and keep asking for it from our elected officials.
I still remember the “Just Say No” drug-free campaign of the 1980’s in my school days. I can detail to you the coloring books and even the commercials. It is a different set of issues and topic today but outreach in elementary school worked for me. It resonated. I don’t think this education effort has to be a multi-media, expensive campaign. I think nutrition outreach and education has to be local, grassroots and through mentorship. 3. Increase nutrition outreach, education and accountability at a local level. There has to be a way we can teach kids to make healthy choices without forcing it upon them and not giving them options they will eat. Eventually I think my kids will eat eggplant and cherry tomatoes. I am not quitting but it takes time.
For now, we have sandwiches in the freezer for Hunter to pull out and quickly pack a lunch daily along with a variety of fruit, granola bars and yogurt. He will buy milk at school. We will keep working on the eggplant and tomato options. He also has his grandparents who live across the street from his school. Hunter has plans for big lunches made by Nana. He might be the only child in America that has a grandma across the street from the school ready and willing to have a home cooked meal waiting at 12:10PM daily. I wish more kids had a kind-hearted grandma to make them lunch across the street from school. It would be a slice of school lunch utopia.
What are your ideas to bring balance and healthy variety to school lunches?