School Lunch: French Fries Still a Vegetable, But New Rules Are Better

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Yesterday, First Lady Michelle Obama ate a cafeteria lunch at a local D.C. area elementary school as a sign of support (and photo op) to mark the new USDA nutritional standards for public school lunches.

These rules, which must be implemented by July, 2012, aren't perfect (French fries are still considered a vegetable -- though they should be baked), but they're a start.

Some of the new regulations are just plain common sense. To sum it up - feed kids less processed crap and more fiber rich whole foods that have less sugar, sodium, and fat. Some key parts of the new rule include the following:

  • Food products and ingredients used to prepare school lunches and breakfasts must contain zero grams of trans fat per serving (less than 0.5 grams per serving) according to the nutrition labeling or manufacturer's specifications.
  • Offer lunches and breakfasts that supply, on average over the school week, less than 10 percent of total calories from saturated fat.
  • Offer fruit as a separate food component at lunch daily. Increase the fruit and vegetable amounts at lunch and double the minimum required fruit quantity at breakfast.
  • Allow schools to offer a non-starchy vegetable in place of fruit/fruit juice at breakfast. Allow frozen fruit without added sugar only.
  • Offer lunches and breakfasts that supply, on average over the school week, a number of calories that is within the established minimum and maximum levels for each age/grade group.
  • Offer a meat/meat alternate at lunch and breakfast daily to meet weekly requirements.

Targeting school lunches is, to me, an ideal way to start kids on the road to healthy eating. According to the USDA, over 31 million American children take advantage of free or subsidized school meals.

That means that there are 31 million chances a day to get kids acclimated to eating healthy instead of starting them on sugar, salt, and fat addictions.Whatever may happen outside of the classroom, healthy school meals give these children an opportunity to eat at least one nutritious meal a day.

Porky Corky at some carnival in Brooklyn - after consuming probably a dozen hot dogs.
When I was a kid, I was chubby. Not obese, just big enough that I was ribbed about my size. I was called Porky Corky. In mid-'70s Brooklyn, the odds were stacked against me.

School lunches in Brooklyn were a strange affair -- slimy chicken chow mein, square pizza, hot dogs, mac and cheese. For snacks, our teachers actually sold the students potato chips and candy (the teachers reminded us to ask our parents for milk and snack money). Only full-fat milk was available, usually warm and about to turn.

There were soda machines in the hallway, where we waited in line to buy that version of kiddie crack, Mountain Dew, and a candy store on the corner. The only school cafeteria fruit or vegetable I remember were the anemic, hard, tiny red apples that were left uneaten on each tray as we filed out to resume class after lunch. Oh...and greasy buttered corn kernels (to go with the tater tots).

After school was no better. My mother would put out an entire Sara Lee cheesecake or a box of cookies -- a snack to study by. The defense that my mother still uses to this day? "I loved you so I fed you. Who knew about what was healthy in those days?"

That may have held water in the '70s, but it sure doesn't today, and serving children sodium, fat, and sugar-laden chemically-enhanced foods at school is heinous.

If there's anyone on the Republican side of the fence who's thinking about whether to nitpick about the new changes in school lunch standards that Mrs. Obama is touting, I ask them to reconsider. The health of our children (and the future savings on healthcare and disability payouts) transcends politics.

Because no child should ever have to eat an unhealthy lunch -- or be called porky.

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smart cookie
smart cookie

While I am at it, the Federal guidelines have always only been minimum standards. No Federal regulation has ever prevented parents from banding together to assure that their own child's school is a step above. The focus on promoting healthful childhoods ought be on promoting parental responsibility rather than allowing all too many parents a pass on personal accountability.

smart cookie
smart cookie

Actually, I only had 1 mom and dad. I meant, of course, "by."

smart cookie
smart cookie

I recognize that there are too many children who depend upon school for breakfast and lunch as their family has little other means; however, the only truly telling line in your article is the paragraph about what your mother fed you. Good nutrition starts in the family kitchen, not in school. The "obesity epidemic" is a product of poor food choices provided my moms and dads across our nation, even in homes of means. No one forces parents to buy chips and soda instead of healthful choices. Children who learn to like apples will eat apples, regardless of the ad budgets of major corporations.  

Laine Doss
Laine Doss

Smart:  While I agree that it's also a parent's responsibility to eat well at home, I remembering introduced to radical healthy foods like raw carrot sticks at class trips...that I never would have gotten at home.  And lets not forget studies that show children at poverty levels might be getting little to no food at home, let alone nutritious meals. A healthy school lunch and breakfast program ensures that kids eat nutritious food at least once a day.

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