Are School Districts Really Rejecting Healthier New Meal Standards?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on September 3, 2013

Last week the Associated Press ran a widely disseminated article indicating that:

some schools around the country are dropping out of the healthier new federal lunch program, complaining that so many students turned up their noses at meals packed with whole grains, fruits and vegetables that the cafeterias were losing money.

The AP story was picked up so widely that over a week later, my Google alerts continue to link to reprints of it around the country, along with riffs on the same theme by other news organizations, such as this piece from Time magazine.

But the question is, are school districts really opting out of the National School Lunch Program to any significant degree?

Today San Francisco school food reformer Dana Woldow answers that question with a resounding “no.”  Her piece, posted this morning on Beyond Chron, systematically and thoroughly discredits the AP report, along with a similar story by CBS News, finding glaring inaccuracies in the reporting of both.  Rather than the mass exodus from the NSLP implied by these stories, Woldow tallies up the schools in the districts mentioned in the AP piece and finds that they add up to a mere ten schools – out of the 100,000 schools participating in the program.  Please read her piece in full, which will leave you scratching your head over  mistakes made by two supposedly reputable, national news outlets.

But the degree to which the AP story spread like wildfire (someone even mentioned it to me at a party over the weekend) begs another question, which is:  why do the media seem to love these stories of “kids reject healthier food?”  Last fall, when the new healthier meal standards were first implemented, the media was so saturated with this narrative that the news coverage was even mocked on The Daily Show.

As I’ve noted in the past, it may be relevant that Michelle Obama has been the public face of the new meal regulations, giving school meal reform a red state/blue state subtext that excites news editors.  Maybe we like to have our worst fears confirmed: “See?  You can lead kids to healthy food but they’re still not going to eat it.”   Or maybe there’s nothing terribly exciting about a news story showing that fruit and vegetable consumption actually goes up when schools serve more produce.

If there really is a widespread opting-out of the National School Lunch Program, that’s news worth reporting.  But if the story is trumped up and misleading, it only does damage to the many, many school districts out there working hard to implement the new meal standards — and gain student acceptance of healthier food.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris September 3, 2013 at 10:29 am

Funny, as I have found that whenever my grrls take healthy food in their lunches- their friends all want to eat it. Frustrates me, that the other parents continue to buy junk for their children when they will in fact eat and enjoy healthier options.. yes, they do often cost more, are your children not worth it?…

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Mara September 4, 2013 at 9:14 am

Or maybe most news outlets are more interested in getting a “story” than getting a real story. Or maybe the businesses that control most news media have owners/shareholders in common with industrial food and school lunch businesses like Sysco and Chartwells, so they have a vested interest in slanting the story in that direction.

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Anne September 10, 2013 at 9:12 am

There are more positive reactions to the changes described in this article, with an interesting/troubling analysis of how reactions follow socioeconomic lines.
http://m.colorlines.com/archives/2013/09/what_ever_happened_to_michelle_obamas_lunch_program.html

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Bettina Elias Siegel September 10, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Thanks for sharing that, Anne – I’m eager to read it.

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