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How to Make School Lunches More Healthy

Even though nearly 4 million people tuned in for the final episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, a TV show in which the celebrity chef tried to reform a small school district's food program with healthier alternatives, pundits think that the show is unlikely to be picked up for a second season.

But whether it continues or not, the show has already accomplished an impressive feat: It made ordinary Americans more aware of the numerous problems affecting school lunches. And now, from the internet to break rooms everywhere, more and more people are talking about what we can do to improve what kids are eating for lunch.

Here are five ways we can make school lunches healthier:

1. Get rid of the unhealthy temptations.

You're 15 years old, you have 20 minutes for lunch, and you want to get in some socializing with your friends. What would you do, wait in a long line for an unappealing, pallid tray of hot food, or hit the vending machines for a soda and bag of chips? Unsurprisingly, many children opt for the latter.

The public data about school vending machines is mostly outdated, but what's there isn't very encouraging. According to the CDC's School Health Policies and Programs Study, last conducted in 2006 (another survey is planned for 2012), 32 percent of states no longer allow junk food in their school vending machines, up from 8 percent in 2000. That's a huge increase, but it still only represents 16 out of 50 states. Further, nearly 90 percent of high schools had vending machines on the premises, and more than two-thirds of schools offered "cookies, crackers, cakes, pastries, or other baked goods that are not low in fat" as a la carte lunch options.

One potential fix is a bill that's currently stuck in committee in both the House and Senate. The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009 would update “the national school nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold outside of school meals" and create nutrition standards that applied to all food sold on school campuses. Kids are bound to want snacks during the day, so if a school is going to have vending machines, we should at least make sure they sell only healthy foods.
2. Give lunchtime a little more respect.

One of the main reasons that children choose junk food over real food is that the time allotted for school lunches is often very short—as in, not even enough time to read a menu and place your order in a sit down restaurant.

Forcing kids to learn how to eat quickly ultimately promotes a fast-food culture. We’re not allowing kids enough time to savor, enjoy, or properly digest a meal. It also takes time for the body to react to the food it has consumed and to acknowledge when it is actually full. If kids ate slower at lunchtime, they would have more time to let the food settle and be better equipped to return to the classroom and focus.

Respecting lunch also means giving the kitchen staff better training and better pay. In addition, we need to offer the lunch workers more say in what gets served. They hear what the kids are saying about the food, and they know which food sells and which doesn’t. And, of course, we need to provide schools with kitchens that can actually produce food and not merely heat it up.
3. Do away with the bad stuff (and bring in more of the good stuff).

Processed foods tend to be full of high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, and preservatives—and there’s no need for them. Somehow we managed to eat fine before any of these chemicals and food additives existed, so why do we need them now? Sure, they make food cheaper (thanks to government subsidies) and convenient (because they last longer), but they’re not good for our bodies.

We need to ban processed foods and create meals that use the fruits and vegetables that young bodies need to grow. We also need to look at various kinds of proteins, not just meat. Beyond just getting rid of the bad stuff, we should also spend more time educating our kids about what’s good for them and why, so they'll be more likely to continue their healthy eating habits outside of school walls. That could even mean hosting cooking classes for parents and their kids at night or on weekends, so that healthy eating can become a family activity.
4. Connect with local food sources.

Farm to school

programs provide a connection to local food sources, which means the food is fresher and likely healthier (since it needs fewer preservatives). Every school should also have some sort of a garden (either on land adjacent to the school or on top of the roof). Gardens have multiple benefits including providing educational opportunities for almost all content areas, allowing kids get to see where their food comes from, being healthy (schools can control how the food is grown and what sort of fertilizers and pest control methods are used), and enabling students to be outside and get dirty (not many classes normally allow for this).
5. Lead by example.

There’s nothing worse than, “Do as I say, not as I do." Educators, administrators, and coaches should take a hard look at the food and drink messages they’re sending to kids. Children will notice that bag of Doritos you’re munching on between classes, and the bottle of Coke you’re drinking after lunch to stay awake.

We can tell kids to eat healthy and make good choices until we’re blue in the face, but if they see adults they trust and respect doing the opposite, then the wrong message will be conveyed.

These are just five simple ideas for making school lunches more healthy for our children. One of the easiest ways to improve lunchtime in our schools is to improve food education. If kids were more aware of what went into the foods we're asking them to eat, and were allowed to be more involved with the decisions about what is being served, they might just demand to be given better alternatives.

Of course, none of the above is possible without the necessary funding. No matter how good the intentions of parents, teachers, lunch workers, or administrators, if the money isn’t there, it will be hard to get good, quality food into school meals. We need to revamp the National School Lunch Program, currently being debated in Congress, by providing more funding for school lunch and more effort to incorporate the suggestions listed above.

Kate Aubin
is a teacher, activist, and gardener. She blogs daily at Three Ninety Eight.

Illustrations by Tiffany Huang.

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