No safe bets: Revamping the school lunch program

Image used with permission from the USDA (via Creative Commons).

Thanks to a long-overdue overhaul by the USDA, school lunches are likely to look a lot different starting July 1. Here in Las Vegas, the Clark County School District — the nation’s fifth largest — is readying to implement new school lunch guidelines this fall.

And it’s one tall order.

As this well-written and insightful piece from The Las Vegas Weekly explores, the process is anything but smooth. While the reimbursement rates for the federal school lunch program was raised — a student lunch fetches $2.77 each for the CCSD — it’s still a very low threshold in which to accomplish some pretty lofty goals. And CCSD, serving more than 250,000 meals (breakfasts and lunches) a day, has the highest rate (57 percent) of free and reduced-cost lunches in the country (outside of New York and Los Angeles). New requirements include one full cup each of a fruit and a vegetable, two ounces of meat (or substitute), at least two ounces of whole grains. And a glass of milk. But it’s the nutritional standards that may trip many kitchens and food-buyers up: No trans fats and keeping saturated fats lower than 10 percent of the meal’s calories with a total daily calorie count between 750 and 850.

The focus of the article was not only the internal struggles at the CCSD to meet these new standards before the new school year, but also the very real obstacles of creating meals that can be mass-produced, taste good (aka kids will eat), and meet all the standards. We’re talking about kids who are used to eating something called “Super Donuts”, an engineered “food” injected with orange juice and additives, for breakfast.

The Weekly went to chefs on The Strip — a concept explored in other cities by the Chefs Move to Schools program — to see what fare they would create, and all of them fell short (if even by a hair) of creating something that could fit all the parameters. That’s disheartening but real.

So is the reality of what school lunches have been in schools across the country — something cataloged in sometimes gross detail on many sites. Considering that the federal school lunch programs (free and reduced-cost) feed 32 million kids, this is an important topic. Now that the economy is so bad, more kids are qualifying for free and reduced-cost lunches. For some of these kids, the meals they get at school are the only ones they’ll get all day. And instead of pink slime or singling them out with cheese sandwiches, we need to do right by them.

And since women and children — particularly people of color and immigrant families — are disproportionately hit by poverty, hunger and food-insecurity, the fight over school lunches and their nutritional value is a feminist one.

One of the driving forces of the new USDA school lunch standards is a preventative approach to childhood obesity. Maybe it will help. But it certainly can’t hurt. And even if the behavior modeled at home is less than healthy, at least these kids will get one (or two) solid meals a day. And that’s got to count for something.


    • Is that the same one that was on NPR? My husband is obsessed with getting our daughter to try a new cheese every week now (LOL)!

      My philosophy is: Put it in front of them; eat it in front of them. Usually my kid will try stuff (at least once) if she sees us eat it. I do have a picky eater (she doesn’t like certain textures), but even she surprises me at times with her adventurous spirit!

      And wouldn’t it be great if school was a place where they had new (healthy) food experiences, just like learning other skills in the classroom?

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