NY Times on Kids’ Rejection of New School Food, And My Thoughts

A lot of you saw this Saturday’s front page story in the New York Times describing how students around the country are complaining about, and even boycotting, the new school food.  The biggest complaints stem from the increased amounts of fruits and vegetables served and the smaller portions of other foods like meat and grain components.

For Lunch Tray readers, this is old news.  For the past two or three weeks on this blog, the new school meal regulations and student reaction to them have been topics of in-depth discussion.  (Yeah, just another TLT scoop on the NYT!  :-) )  For that reason, I don’t want to go over old ground but simply add a few additional points:

Who Is Boycotting Lunch — and Who Is Really Paying the Price?

Intrepid school food reformer Dana Woldow actually took the time to get statistics on some of the schools reportedly boycotting school food.  She found, for example, that the Kansas high school which produced the widely-viewed “We Are Hungry” video has only 83 students, 29 of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch.  The Parsippany Hills, NJ high school mentioned in the Times report, at which school food is being boycotted, has about 1,100 kids, 5% of whom — or 60 students — qualify for free and reduced lunch.

In other words, the vast majority of the protesting students at these schools are ostensibly capable of buying more food or bringing food from home if they truly feel deprived by the new school meals.  (In fact, several media reports I’ve seen, including the Times report, quote complaining students as saying they now buy extra food or bring more food from home.)  But as Dana also pointed out in an email to me last night:

I wonder if it has ever occurred to the middle class kids who are organizing these protests that while they have the luxury of saying no to school food, there are other kids who rely on it for a substantial part of their daily nutrition, and who are being put in the unpleasant position of having to choose between being cool [by joining everyone else in the boycott] and being hungry?

An excellent point, and not one I’ve seen in the widespread media coverage of this issue.  The National School Lunch Program’s primary purpose is to serve children in need, and we already know that these children sometimes avoid eating lunch altogether — despite hunger — because the school lunch has been deemed “uncool” by their more affluent peers (more on that below).  How much more pressure do these kids now feel to avoid eating lunch?

Calorie Caps in Perspective

For those who haven’t been following this issue closely, it’s important to point out that the new calorie caps are not resulting in meals that are significantly lower in calories than the old school meals.  Indeed, the Times report indicates that school meals under the old regulations were actually offering slightly fewer calories based on information from cafeteria audits. So the real issue here is where the calories are coming from:  more from fruits and vegetables, fewer from the old standbys of pizza and nuggets.   That seems to be at the crux of students’ complaints, but is it something we really want to change?

What School Food Professionals “On the Ground” Are Saying

All this said, I’m certainly not a reflexive defender of every aspect of the new school food regulations.  When it comes to the reality of serving school meals, I always defer to the heroic people out there doing it every day.  And these folks are not so happy.   If you haven’t done so, you might want to read the comments thread on this post, in which TLT’s anonymous school food professional, “Wilma,” describes how incredibly hard menu planning has become and her concern that yet more processed foods are creeping into school meals to help districts meet the regulations’ stringent weekly meat/grain limits. Other school food professionals commenting on that post (and also on TLT’s Facebook page over the last few weeks) seem to agree.

The Insidious Role of “A La Carte” Food

I hope you noticed the reference at the end of the Times story to Los Angeles USD’s efforts to improve school food, efforts which received widespread, and quite negative, press coverage last year.  (My thoughts on that media firestorm are here and here.)   After what sounded like some initial quality control problems, things have settled down in LAUSD but students are apparently still resisting the healthier menu.  Why?  Here’s what the Times reports:

 Nicole Anthony, the cafeteria manager at one Los Angeles school, Nimitz Middle School in Huntington Park, estimated that out of the 1,800 students, almost all of whom qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, only 1,200, “on a good day,” now eat the cafeteria’s offerings.

Ms. Anthony is not optimistic that the students will warm to their new lunches anytime soon — not as long as they can buy Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from the vending machines or brownies from the student store for lunch.

“Why would I come over here for a chicken and apple when I can get a cookie and some Gatorade and some gummies?” she said. “What would you choose?”

So, what are your thoughts on the Times story and this issue generally?  Let me know in a comment below.

As I have been writing since the very inception of this blog two years ago, the presence of “a la carte” or “competitive” junk food in our nation’s cafeterias will always have the effect of undermining even the best efforts to children well.

My school district here in Houston is doing a lot of things right, but it’s still selling garbage like this to our middle and high school kids every single day:

Bright red and blue “juice slush” and fried chip nachos from an HISD high school “a la carte” snack bar.

Moreover, not only does a la carte junk food pose a nutritional issue, it inadvertently creates a civil rights issue when only kids with money in their pockets can get the “cool food,” and needy kids are afraid to stand in line for the federally subsidized meal lest their pictures be snapped on cell phones and posted on Facebook to shame them for their lower economic status.

New federal rules on competitive food are due out any day – most likely after the presidential election.  But will they really clean up schools’ acts?   Unfortunately I’m doubtful, as I explain here.

Expect much more discussion on TLT regarding competitive food in the months ahead.

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  1. says

    I encourage your readers to stand up for healthier snacks: http://www.preventobesity.net/inside-track-may-31-C
    Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began to implement improved nutrition standards for school meals. But those new guidelines don’t apply to food and beverages served outside of meals, including snacks.
    That’s one of the reasons why PreventObesity.net Leader Casey Hinds sent an email on Wednesday to the entire PreventObesity.net network of nearly 100,000 people asking folks to sign a petition supporting policies and programs that promote healthy snacks in schools.

  2. Alicia says

    So if almost all of the student at Nimitz qualify for free lunch, how is it the can afford the flaming cheetos and brownies? There are MUCH deeper problems with the funding of the school lunch program . I find it strange that nobody involved ever wants to address that aspect.

    • Kate says

      Alicia, that is a really good point about how the students can afford it.

      I don’t think schools need to provide access to foods like Cheetos or slushies, in the a la carte line or elsewhere. However I don’t agree that we should eliminate the a la carte line merely because someone could have their pic snapped while they are in line. If students are inappropriately taking pics in the lunch room or elsewhere, that is a separate issue from whether we should have the a la carte line or not.

      • Alicia says

        I certainly wouldn’t want anyone singled out, photographed or anything like that. Rather, I think there is a problem with how kids are identified as needing a free or reduced lunch and breakfast. In my county, one of the wealthier in my state, we have 53% receiving the assistance. I know these are tough times, but that cannot be the percentage of families who cannot afford to feed their families. And I know that schools have huge incentives for having more kids on the list to receive the free meals as that allows them more federal funding. I’m not saying those schools don’t deserve or need that funding for education purposes, but connecting it to the free lunch program should not be necessary to get those funds.

  3. says

    “…the presence of ‘a la carte’ or ‘competitive’ junk food in our nation’s cafeterias will always have the effect of undermining even the best efforts to [feed] children well.”

    This seems like an overly broad statement to me. If the competitive food selection boils down to Flaming Cheetos and similar junk, then sure. You’re right. However, nothing says a competitive food program can’t offer as-nutritious selections as the main line, does it? It’s just that the majority of schools don’t have the resources or reason to do so. (I’m talking a-la-cart, here, not vending machines.)

    I’ve always wondered why more schools (at least the ones with real kitchens) don’t try beefing-up their paid selection with better and healthier choices to help offset the cost of providing a healthier free lunch program. If nothing else, the money coming in from a-la-carte could provide the funds for shared labor resources, which benefits both programs.

    Yes, I agree that it doesn’t solve the free lunch “stigma” problem. I also understand that more schools than not probably don’t have a real kitchen. And I understand that some schools have something like a 90%+ eligibility for free lunch (leaving pretty much nobody as a paying customer). However, it’s possible that this model could work somewhere…

    It seems to me that one of the best places to try this would be in a school district with contracted catered lunch (Sodehxo, Marriot, Chartwells, etc.). While district-run programs may not have the volume, restaurant experience, and business prowess to set-up such a scheme, you’d think a professional catering company could pull it off–especially if they stood to benefit by getting a small cut of the profits.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Justin: Well, I did say “a la carte or competitive junk food,” and I agree that a selection of healthy food doesn’t undermine the program nutritionally. But it does undermine the program in other ways. That is, when you have mediocre (or worse) food on the federally subsidized line and then fresh, restaurant quality food on the a la carte line, I think you only solidify the stigma issue. Here in Houston ISD, for example, Aramark (our FSMC) has put really lovely “made to order panini bars” in several Houston high schools, but the food is totally out of reach for the majority of our students, 80%+ of whom are F/R. Furthermore, I think schools will always have the incentive to put junk on the a la carte line (to whatever degree the future regulations will allow) if only to keep kids from spending their money off campus or on similar junk food offered by student groups, etc. as fundraisers.

      • says

        I stand corrected. Not sure how I missed the word “junk” (even though I copied and pasted it). Sorry ’bout that… 😉

        The panini bar (which is a really neat idea, btw) is actually a great illustration for my question/point. Why couldn’t it be theoretically possible to plan out a panini bar in such a way that the free lunch students can get their entree from there while getting whatever the basic sides are out of the regular line (or better yet, a trip to the salad bar)? A sandwich is a sandwich and it should be at least possible to make sure it’s reimburseable. Why should the free lunch folks have to eat a crappy burger or a chicken patty or a pre-made deli sandwich when there’s a choice of fresh-made sandwiches already available? In districts where the F/R ratio is not as unbalanced, the labor costs could actually be shared between the two programs because the same “lunch ladies” are serving both groups. I admit, I’m not sure how or if it’d work with an 80% F/R ratio. That seems a harder nut to crack.

  4. says

    quoting Dana “there are other kids who rely on it for a substantial part of their daily nutrition, and who are being put in the unpleasant position of having to choose between being cool [by joining everyone else in the boycott] and being hungry?”

    every child eating school lunch, whether it’s the a la cart garbage, or the slightly less garbagy line with no-fat milk, processed chicken and a pesticide sprayed waxy apple is starved. it doesn’t matter how many calories the USDA is willing to serve kids, nearly every calorie is served in school cafe is nutrient void and many calories are anti-nutrients. until THAT problem is addressed the problem of whether the middle class kids or the poverty stricken kids are creating problems for each other is moot. both groups of kids are almost equally starved by their govt and schools.

    kids need fat, protein, carbs. from real food sources. not food like substances that have spent time in factories getting enhanced by lab created vitamins the body can’t process anyway.

    if the food scarce kids are opting out of fake food at school, they may not be doing themselves as much harm as we think they are. the alternative is to eat food in either line, possibly end up obese, and still be malnourished.

    if we as a nation can not provide real nutrition that will nourish a child instead of “feed” a child, children are being harmed, hungry or not.

    dang it. i book marked a recent study that stated obese people are similarly malnourished as those who were underfed. can’t find it of course. if i turn it up, i will come back and share.

    • Kate says

      I agree that kids should be eating real food as much as possible.

      However, I found other parts of your post confusing. When you use the word “starved”, what parameters are you using to measure that?

      Can you be more descriptive of what you mean by antinutrients, and give some examples?

      Also can you be more descriptive by what you mean by lab created vitamins that the body can’t process? Are you talking about specific vitamins? Which ones? Many people, for a variety of reasons, might receive micronutrients, in other ways, such as through a tube feeding, a pill or an injection. In some cases we can see a therapeutic benefit, or we can actually measure blood levels. Ideally, we’d receive all of our nutrients through a well balanced diet. For those who can’t though…I think your statement needs clarification.

  5. A says

    So, kids like junk food more than they like veggies & fruits. So? Take the junk food away. Don’t allow alternatives (unless it’s equally as healthy). I don’t offer my kids a bag of fried junk OR a balanced dinner & the school shouldn’t do it for lunch! If the kids are really hungry, they will eat the fruits & veggies. What are the parents saying about their kids buying more food in the a la carte line? We can’t always give in to kids wanting junk food. This is why the majority of our country is over weight.

  6. TOBLER says

    …well, I agree with Justin that there’s some overly broad rhetoric here– it seems to reflect some fuzzy thinking and a mild dash of authoritarianism.

    There is no “hunger problem” in America and no need for a government lunch program at all. Even school cafeterias are quite optional, as a Canadian poster informed us here.

    The alleged proof of a ‘hunger problem’ comes from a 2011 USDA study on childhood “food security” — a nonsense USDA term that is not synonymous with either child nutrition or child hunger. ( http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err125.aspx )

    USDA asserts that 20% of families in America have “low food security,” but more quietly states that only 1% of American children experienced actual hunger at any time during 2010 (the most recent year statistics are available).

    Thus, 99% of American children do NOT go hungry, ever … according to the Federal USDA itself. There is no hunger problem!

    Foreign observers often note that America has the fattest poor-people in the world. The very few American children who sometimes might experience true hunger … are typically victims of dysfunctional families (e.g., alcohol/drug-addicted or mentally ill parents). There’s plenty of food in America and plenty of public & private agencies helping those truly in need.

    Note that hunger was indeed a very real & widespread problem in the U.S. up until the 1950’s when American economic prosperity boomed. The 1946 ‘National School Lunch Program’ was actually a ‘national security’ program implemented by President Truman to ensure a large pool of healthy young men for the U.S. military and national defense. Medical exams for the huge WW II conscription of American males had revealed shockingly high levels of medical-disqualification due to malnutrition effects.

    American kids today are fine … instead, help the vast multitudes of really starving kids across the globe.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says


      Do you discount the experience of Brian, a teacher in the South, who recently told us of students who may go from one day to the next only eating school lunch? Do you similarly discount the observations of Lisa Scarpinato, who saw childhood hunger in her own city and created a program to supply needy children on Fridays with backpacks food to get them through the weekend? Do you discount the observations of lunch room workers who see noticeably longer breakfast lines on Monday mornings because kids did not receive enough food over the weekend? These are anecdotal reports of childhood hunger, to be sure, but what incentive do these people have for lying?

      Moreover, the argument that childhood obesity negates childhood hunger is a specious one.

      • Wendy says

        Anecdotes are not data.

        If you are a rational thinking person, that is.

        Tobler is absolutely correct. School food is not causing obesity. It is not alleviating an imaginary hunger crisis. Do away with school lunches altogether. Have kids bring their own lunch and give them ample time to eat it or go to the library or tear up the playground.

        • Bettina Elias Siegel says

          Wendy: I’m so sorry you felt the need to engage in ad hominem attacks in your subsequent comment on this blog. I’m open to all viewpoints, no matter how much I might disagree with them, but when you veer into incivility you lose your right to play in my sandbox. Your IP address is now in my spam folder and no further comments of yours will be seen by me for moderation.


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