When you were a kid, how many jokes did you make about the quality of your school lunch? Was the chicken pink? Did the coleslaw taste like it was a month old? Schools are supposed to provide a quality education and provide a solid, nutritious meals program, but they are not achieving the latter goal in any way, shape, or form today.
67% of middle school students who eat school lunches regularly are classified medically as either overweight or obese.
Unhealthy School Lunches
It’s not just the weight gain that is bothersome for students today. It’s the fact that many of the ingredients being used to create school lunches aren’t sourced from fresh, local ingredients. They’re filled with preservatives, are often some of the cheapest foods that are available, and this increases the bad cholesterol rates in today’s kids.
- Children who eat school lunches are 5 times more likely to eat a minimum of 2 servings of a fatty food, like fried chicken.
- Students who eat school lunches are more twice as likely to eat 2 or fewer servings of fruit every day.
- Kids who are more likely to eat school lunches are less likely to participate in school activities, sports, or moderate exercise programs that are home-based.
Are school lunches helping to promote the obesity epidemic that is developing in the US and around the world? There’s a possibility this is so, especially from an American perspective. Kids who eat school lunches are 14% more likely to be diagnosed as being overweight and are much more likely to exercise less, if at all. Although there are many promotions that are encouraging kids to be active, like the NFL’s Play 60 campaign, a shift in perspective to encourage healthier school lunches may make an even greater impact.
What Could Healthier School Lunches Do?
- In the United Kingdom, kids who eat healthy school lunches are 3.4 times more likely to focus on their studies and retain information.
- In Bangladesh, students who received fortified biscuits as part of their school meals had 16% better scores than students who did not.
- During any time of economic hardship, one of the biggest problems for school children is the amount of food that is available.
- School lunches around the world encourage higher enrollment rates, making them a critical component to the future success of our world.
- Girls in India are 30% more likely to complete their school education simply because lunches are offered at school.
- In Africa, schools that offered a school meal saw a 22% increase in formal enrollment.
- The issue for the US isn’t a lack of food, but a lack of nutrition.
- More than half of schools that prepared meals on site used fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned.
The obvious problem in the US is a lack of resources for families to provide a balanced diet. Low income families rely on cheaper, preservative-laden foods because that is all they can afford. When students go to school for a hot lunch and they receive the same thing, then there is an imbalance in the amount of actual nutrition that they receive. Poor nutrition foods eaten on a regular basis are a fast way to create a problem of obesity and that’s exactly what US schools are seeing thanks to their unhealthy school lunches that are served.
Isn’t it More Expensive to Provide Healthier Food?
- Kids in India saw a 30% improvement in their rates of iron deficiency simply with the addition of school meals to the day.
- In the UK, absences due to sickness were reduced by 14% just by switching their meals program over to healthier foods.
- Although initial costs may be higher, a healthier population in the long-term will save billions of dollars in future healthcare costs.
- 33% of high school students eat vegetables less than once per day on average.
- Part of the problem has been food classifications for school lunch, such as tomato paste, laden with high fructose corn syrup, being labeled as a serving of vegetables on a slice of pizza.
- Instead of improving nutrition and limiting high calories starches, calorie caps have been placed in the US to 650-850 calories, limiting the amount of food that children can get and potentially adding a secondary risk to their future because they are hungrier than before.
- In 2012, the plate model of nutrition was introduced in the United States as a guideline for healthy school lunches. Finland has used this guideline since 1948 and has fully funded lunches to all people, not just as a low income subsidy.
In some instances, the United States is beginning to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of providing good nutrition to kids during the school day. In other places, the US is behind countries like Bangladesh in terms of actual nutritional content that is in the foods that are being served to kids. Although some schools are doing an excellent job, growing food in a local garden and finding healthier options that are more cost effective, many schools are still relying on old, unhealthy methods. Until changes are made, kids just won’t have the tools they need for success in a country that is routinely called the best in the world.
What Can Be Done to Make Changes?
- 80% of schools in the United States do not meet USDA standards for fat composition.
- Vending machines that allow for the purchase of sodas are present in 43% of elementary schools.
- Up to 20% of a school’s food is received directly from the federal government in the US.
- The number of obese children has tripled since 1980.
- 40% of girls have a lifetime risk of being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
- More than 70% of adolescents who are overweight or obese retain their weight as they get older.
The time to establish healthy eating habits is when kids are young. Some foods are fine as treats, but making cheeseburgers and pizza a regular part of the school lunch program is a recipe for disaster.