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