Rethinking School Lunch

by Barbara Cervone

Chicago, ILAs their deadline drew close on a November morning at Clemente Community Academy, teams of students from 15 Chicago public high schools were working intently on a challenge that has eluded policymakers for decades: How to make a healthy school lunch that hungry kids will eat.

For an annotated list of links, resources, and articles involving school gardens, CLICK HERE.

Brown rice and chicken stir-fry? Vegetable medley? Baked-pear dessert? These young chefs studiously ignored the aromas of pizza and french fries wafting from the school cafeteria. The new lunch equation they had to solve presented more complicated factors.

It could take no more than six steps to prepare. It must meet U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards. It had to include at least one item from a list of frozen local produce. Most daunting, it could cost no more than a dollar per student, the lunch budget for the Chicago Public Schools.

The stakes were high. Over 600 adults were paying $100 a person to attend the  “Cooking Up Change” event that evening, part of the 2009 “Cooking Up Change” challenge by the Healthy Schools Campaign, a leading voice on healthy school environments. A reporter was taking close notes for a Chicago Tribune article. The winning team would work alongside President Obama’s personal chef to prepare a meal for members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Even more important, these youth were facing down a nutrition challenge that has grown to epidemic proportions in the United States. America’s obesity problem poses particular threats to children, most of all low-income children for whom healthy food options are few. And school lunch, with its cheap and highly processed offerings, has not been helping.

These young Chicago chefs were cooking up change: cafeteria food that was good for you and tasted good, too.

An unhealthy history

For decades, American students have tagged school lunch as “nasty.” In the 1930s, when policymakers introduced the idea of school lunch, they were not thinking about taste-bud appeal.

Instead, they saw the school cafeteria as a place to address two problems: how to feed the hungry children of the Great Depression, and what to do with a rising agricultural surplus that was plunging American farmers into bankruptcy.

When the United States entered World War II, nutrition became “a matter of self defense,” Susan Levine writes in School Lunch Polities: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (Princeton University Press, 2008). In 1946 Congress established the National School Lunch Program—which is still in existence, serving approximately 30.5 million lunches per day at a cost of $8.7 billion a year.

In the 1940s and 50s, school lunch was seen as a program for all children, rich and poor. In the 1960s it evolved into a poverty program, though middle-class students had access to unsubsidized school lunches.

From the start, however, the National School Lunch Program was grossly underfunded, reaching a low in the 1980s under the Reagan administration. Schools turned to private food companies, including fast food chains, to cut costs and operate their cafeterias more efficiently. They also found ways to meet federal nutrition standards with lower quality foods—with the Reagan administration famously suggesting that ketchup could be counted as a vegetable.

Today, many critics point out that the school lunch program, rather than contributing to food security among low-income families, has become a dumping ground for foods we have too much of, and which are not particularly healthy. Typical school meals sell well to children—in part, because their cheap ingredients are highly processed, with high fat and lots of preservatives.

Rethinking school lunch

To help protect children’s health and to reduce childhood obesity rates, the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) in 2001 launched its Healthy School Lunch Campaign, aimed at increasing the availability of healthful plant-based foods in schools.

Ann Cooper, the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley (California) Unified School District, stepped up to the challenge. “I’m the renegade lunch lady,” says Cooper, an outspoken activist for serving fresh, sustainable food to kids. “My life work is to transform cafeterias into culinary classrooms for students—one school lunch at a time.”

Cooper’s two-year old program in Berkeley involves kids in every stage of the food they eat, from growing to disposing of it, and eating some delicious cafeteria lunches along the way. “School lunch is a social justice issue,” Cooper says. “We need to teach children the symbiotic relationship between a healthy planet, healthy food, and healthy kids.”

The Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign, whose young chefs showed how a bit of ingenuity could transform school lunch, are also leaders in this quiet revolution. The burgeoning farm-to-school movement also holds promise of bringing fresh local produce onto cafeteria trays.

In September 2009, Rhode Island unveiled new nutrition standards for school lunch. Schools, it declared, must offer at least two servings of fruits and vegetables at breakfast, at least three servings at lunch and at least one serving in after-school snacks. In addition, they must serve at least three different fruits and at least five different non-fried vegetables each week. Each day, one of the vegetables offered must be dark green or orange and one must be fresh or raw. The guidelines allow only one serving of 100 percent fruit juice each day, in either breakfast or lunch.

Are America’s school children ready for dark green vegetables? The evidence from Chicago, as imaginative young chefs “cooked up change” for their peers, suggests that the answer is yes. If coached on the benefits of healthy eating, students will clean their plate.


Farm to School

Farm to School connects schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers. This growing farm to school movement is supported by eight regional lead agencies that comprise the National Farm to School Network, which offers training and technical assistance, information services, networking, and support in policy and media and marketing activities.  The website includes hundreds of profiles of farm to school sites, from a cadre of over 9,000 schools from over 2,000 school districts.

Healthy Schools Campaign

Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC), an independent not-for-profit organization, is the leading authority on healthy school environments and a voice for people who care about our environment, our children, and education. It advocates for policies and practices that allow all students, teachers and staff to learn and work in a healthy school environment. HSC prepares school stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, school nurses, administrators, community members and others—to become leaders in efforts to create change at the school, district, state and national levels.

Healthy School Lunches

The Healthy School Lunch Campaign, sponsored by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), is dedicated to improving the food served to children in schools by educating government and school officials, food service workers, parents, and others about the food choices best able to promote children’s current and long-term health. The campaign’s key message: Foods served in schools should promote the health of all children. The Healthy School Lunch Campaign encourages schools to offer more healthy low-fat, cholesterol-free options, including reimbursable meals and beverages, a la carte items, and vending machine items.

Rethinking School Lunch

The Rethinking School Lunch (RSL) program uses a systems approach to address the crisis in childhood obesity, provide nutrition education, and teach ecological knowledge. The RSL program includes: a framework for a comprehensive curriculum that integrates campus gardens, kitchen classrooms, school lunch, and a wide range of academic subjects; treats childhood obesity, nutrition-related illness, the quality of school lunches, and children’s ability to learn as related issues; links schools’ food purchasing decisions, the viability of family farms, solid waste generated by the lunchroom, and the environmental cost of shipping food over thousands of miles. RSL also provides a downloadable Model Wellness Policy Guide that provides language and instructions for drafting a Wellness Policy that places health at the center of the academic curriculum.

Lunch Lessons

“I’m the renegade lunch lady. My life work is to transform cafeterias into culinary classrooms for students — one school lunch at a time,” writes Ann Cooper, the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley (California) Unified School District. She's a national outspoken activist for serving fresh, sustainable food to kids. Her lively website, rounds up recipes, links, and resources for food activism.

See also Ann Cooper talks school lunches | Video on Ted

School Lunch: Food Museum Online Exhibit

This online exhibit from the Food Museum includes photographs and simple text to tell the story of this history of school lunch in the U.S. It also includes a school lunch box exhibit and a school lunch reform issue.

School Lunch Talk

School Lunch Talk dishes out the latest on public school food, from chicken nuggets and chocolate milk to legislation and regulations. In addition to school lunch news and commentary, the website highlights the best and the worst of menus across the country; keeps tabs on school food bills at the federal level; takes a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on in the lunchroom, from menu-planning, to budget woes, to figuring out what to do with USDA commodity beans; examines what students eat for school lunch in other countries; and looks at the hottest items in school food

The Lunch Box

Started in September ’09, The Lunch Box is a project of the F3: Food Family Farming Foundation. It is a web-based portal that enables all schools and school districts to make a healthy difference for all children in America by providing relevant information and the pragmatic tools necessary to make good food available for all kids.

See also:

“Congress May Bolster School Lunch Nutrition,” Los Angeles Times, August 26, 2009

“Retooling School Lunch,” Time Magazine, June 11, 2006

“School Lunch: From Bad to Better,” Cape Cod Times, February 5, 2006

“School Lunch Program: The Wisdom of Spending More Money to Provide Healthier Meals,” Washington Post editorial, September 21, 2009

School Lunch Report Card: A Report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Autumn 2008  (PDF)


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