Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Obama School Lunches Leaving Kids Hungry

Kids of all ages are going hungry at school, thanks to the newly-implemented Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. And ironically for the federal school lunch program, kids from the lowest-income families are suffering the most. 

Intentions were terrific behind this initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama: a healthy, balanced lunch for every child, regardless of family income.  The goals are to serve less salt and fat, and more fresh produce and whole grains. 

The bill, the first school lunch overhaul in 15 years,  thankfully corrected egregious food choices foisted on kids by past federal  lunch programs, including mystery meats, highly-processed goops, and a dearth of fresh produce. 

(Remember when President Reagan's 1982 budget classified such fake foods as catsup and pickle relish as vegetables?) 

But as so often happens when government tries to regulate private behavior, the Obama administration went too far. Way too far. And kids across the nation are going hungry at school as a result.  The bill overreaches by setting very restrictive lunch rules, including:

Caloric  ceilings: 650 for elementary school, 700 for middle school, 850 for high school.

Fat content:  Never more than 30% of calories from fat, or more than 10% from saturated fat (examples: cheese, butter, chocolate)

Produce: At least two fruits or vegetables

Beverage: Cow's milk (low-fat or fat-free) or a "nutritionally equivalent nondairy" alternative drink

Grains: 50% of grains (breads) served must be whole-grain

All for about $2.25 per child per lunch, which includes the costs of labor and supplies, leaving very little left to buy ingredients.   (A Syracuse, New York school official told the New York Times that "After labor costs, ... she is left with 15 cents per lunch to buy ingredients, repair equipment and equip cafeterias. 'The federal government knows this is not enough to pay for the food we make,' she said.")

As a result, protein and carbohydrate portions have been reduced in already-meager school lunches, breads are rarely offered, and produce has increased to dominate the 2012 lunch tray. 

Hungry howls can be heard from coast-to-coast, from students, teachers, and even school district officials.  Commented Mitchell, South Dakota School Superintendent Joe Graves:
"The program is creating real problems. It isn’t permitting enough calories for our high school students, especially for those students who spend a long day at school participating in sports or other activities. It’s too draconian an approach, its counterproductive... 
The local press added, "... hungry kids are increasingly choosing to brown bag their lunches, to buy them elsewhere or binge on junk food to get their desired extra calories. Plate waste is growing as kids reject stuff they don’t like. 'The rejected food can’t be given to someone else,' Graves said, 'so it must be thrown out.'"
The New York Times reports:
"Students organized lunch strikes in a suburb of Pittsburgh, where in late August the hashtag “brownbagginit” was trending on Twitter, and outside Milwaukee, where the Mukwonago High School principal, Shawn McNulty, said participation in the lunch program had fallen 70 percent... 
"In New Jersey, more than 1,200 people have joined a Facebook group that urges Parsippany Hills High School students to boycott the school lunches. Despite the enticement of a Chinese-themed lunch a week ago Friday, the first day of the strike, only a few students bought anything from the cafeteria, according to the strike organizers." 
And in Sharon Springs, Kansas, Wallace High School students and two teachers teamed to produce this witty YouTube parody, "We Are the Hungry," which has garnered nearly a million views:

The Obama administration's new school-lunch guidelines are a well-intentioned step forward, but too restrictive, too inflexible. Too extreme. And too much, too soon, to successfully wean American kids off fast food habits, and to inspire love of healthier fare.   Force is not the way to lead kids, or anyone, away from fake foods. 

Perhaps worst of all, kids from low-income families can least afford to augment the often unsatisfying lunches that may be their heartiest meal of the day. Sometimes their only meal... 

Further, few (if any) variations are allowed in school lunches for:
  • Sensitivities and allergies
  • Family traditions and preferences
  • Height,  weight, or metabolism
  • Individual taste 
Calorie ceilings should be raised or entirely ended for school lunches now served under the aegis of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.  Kids of all ages should be offered a reasonable range of healthier food choices rather than be forced to down a narrowly-proscribed diet set by the federal government. 

Children should not be going hungry because of school lunches. And the federal government has no business overriding parents and local school districts by telling kids what to eat. 


  1. I applaud the courage of the First Lady for taking on such an important issue. Who knew that helping kids eat a better diet would be so controversial? I don't agree with your evaluation that the administration went "too far." Major crisis demands major action. Don't you think less "plate waste" might be part of an obvious solution? Changing eating habits is no easy challenge (for children or for adults). Perhaps what we are hearing is the whine of withdrawal for a generation trying to kick the junk food habit. Heathy food is the only thing that will get them through!

    1. Steve: I also applaud the First Lady for her courage in confronting childhood obesity. Her "Let's Move" program, which encourages physical activity, is especially exciting. My point is about the approach: control and force over food habits rarely cause permanent change. I believe that healthy options must be provided, thus empowering kids to make their own choices. And I also believe that creative thinking could go a long way to inspiring kids. (School vegetable gardens, such as the First Lady's White House, is one such idea!) Thanks for your thoughts, Steve.

  2. Interesting post. So, is that a pic of an actual approved lunch? If so, it's really nice and far better than most children get at school.
    I am still not on board that these lunches are so awful, but I could be convinced if I saw a list of what the schools had to serve. I mean ingredients, not caloric measurements and percentages.
    Locally, our school complains about having to serve food under these guidelines too. This is very intriguing, since our area always promotes the Heartland and Farmers growing food for the world. It's difficult to imagine that their children won't eat salad.
    I really think an answer would be for the school to send home a list of what foods they are going to be buying. Then, parents could come up with some kid friendly ideas that would be more accommodating and familiar. They could even send home an announcement for any parents who wanted to be notified, and willing to help think up ideas.
    Part of the problem, is that the schools are offering ridiculous things right out of the gate. What child is going to think that Jicama slices is something tasty? Many whole grain tortillas taste horrible, but there are plenty that taste really good!
    Instead of whining and stomping their collective feet, the schools could be proactive and approach the parents with the dilemma.
    As a disclaimer, I am a homeschooling mother of 5, and cook 3 meals a day, 7 days a week, so I am pretty creative when it comes to inventing recipes. There have to be other parents out there who know how to cook.

    Amy J

    1. Amy: I love your ideas: "I really think an answer would be for the school to send home a list of what foods they are going to be buying. Then, parents could come up with some kid friendly ideas that would be more accommodating and familiar. They could even send home an announcement for any parents who wanted to be notified, and willing to help think up ideas." Terrific!

      I, too, am a creative cook, and believe in healthy meals. Since our home started subscribed to a weekly CSA box of organic produce about 18 months, I've never been more inventive. Or had more fun cooking. School districts are under tremendous budget constraints. But still, as you also say, they could exercise much more imagination in interesting kids in healthy lunch fare.

      Also, I firmly believe that empowering kids to make good choices goes farther in establishing permanent habits than creating anger by forcing bland lunch mandates. In other words, I object to the approach, which is fueling much of the anger.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Amy!

  3. I think parents should feed their kids, problem solved. Families that get free or discounted lunches can supplement their kids lunches (send a snack) if the child doesn't want to eat all of what is provided ( most kids don't any way, you can't really force a kid to eat healthier, it has to be modeled at home!)

  4. this Is a middle school kid and I absolutely hate the lunches its all crappy.