Healthy school lunches: bag or tray?

Everyday parents send their kids off to institutes of learning, away from their watchful eyes and control. It’s a common concern, what goes on at school. We wonder what they hear, how they interact and if they eat the school lunch, what they put in their bodies. School lunch programs often conjure images of matronly women with hair nets and drab aprons spooning questionable materials onto plastic trays. A new focus on healthy lunches is hoping to change that view, and impact the health of our youth as well.

Ten and 20 years ago it became somewhat common to see vending machines in schools and packaged foods on lunch trays. Processed foods weren’t given the attention they are now; they were simply seen as convenient and cheap solutions for schools tasked with feeding hungry mouths. I remember being a kid and seeing the lunch ladies preparing the day’s food with giant cans of sad-looking vegetables and huge bags of burritos or meat patties.

While canned vegetables can still be found in some schools, vending machines and horribly over processed foods may be on their way out. When we see the First Lady picking vegetables in the garden and teaching children about the benefits of fresh foods, we may just get hopeful that those sad cans are on their way out too.

As a matter of fact, parents aren’t the only ones concerned about school nutrition. The President and First Lady have both spoken on the importance of good foods for our kids. President Obama actually wrote an additional $1 billion for child nutrition programs in the 2010 budget proposal.

According to this report from the New York Times, the USDA, which hasn’t changed their school nutrition standards for some 15 years, is upgrading them this year, focusing on improving children’s access to healthy foods while in public schools. The USDA is even looking into programs that bring farm-fresh local produce to school lunch trays.

The difficult part of this is finding nutritional solutions that can be applied with little increase in cost. When you figure how many meals your local school is serving every week and multiply that times the number of schools in the district you will see why school systems, for so long, have valued price over quality.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has sponsored a Healthy School Lunch Campaign to bring attention to changes they believe need to be made in the nation’s school lunch programs. Their recommended changes include focusing lunches on whole plant-based foods and lean proteins by putting the interests of children ahead of the interests of the livestock industries. Also, they promote offering foods with dairy alternatives due to the large number (approximately one-third) of children with lactose intolerance.

When questioning your children about what they ate for lunch, ask them how the vegetables looked or if the fruit was bathed in syrup. Visit the school someday at lunch time to get your own view on how your child’s school is handling childhood nutrition. And, when all else fails, pack a lunch. A healthy bagged lunch with a note for your child can sometimes make them happier than the lunch lady’s “Apple Crunch Surprise” could ever hope to.

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