Esther Cepeda: We are what we eat—and kids will surive changes in school lunches
CHICAGO -- Remember last year’s hysteria over school lunches? Administrators, cafeteria workers, students and parents across the country freaked out when—gasp!—school lunches were made healthier.
News reports throughout the 2012-13 school year—when lunch standards mandated by the 2010 Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act went into effect—told of wrinkled noses, discarded lunch trays, solemn vows to brown-bag kids’ lunches and a glut of wasted food.
Now, just in time for the new school year, researchers suggest that America’s students are actually going to be OK with their new, healthier lunches.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation surveyed principals and school food service providers in spring 2013, approximately six months after the healthier meal standards went into effect.
They found that 56 percent of respondents at elementary schools, 44 percent at middle schools and 53 percent at high schools said students complained at first about the lunches but gradually accepted the new menus across all grade levels. Compared to the previous year, 84 percent reported no change in the number of students buying lunch.
In other words: Aside from some typical kid bluster over new food—and overblown news coverage of it—the students eventually got used to what was being offered and just ate it.
When kids who grow up in a society where “food” is presented to them battered, deep-fried, related to movie tie-in toys, and artificially salted or sweetened—and they are allowed to choose their own food selections—they will scoff at healthier choices.
The new guidelines call for more fruits and vegetables—preferably fresh—more appetite-satiating whole-grain breads instead of insulin-spiking white bread, less sodium overall, and fat-free or low-fat milk.
Nothing controversial, from a nutritional standpoint, but here’s one example of how a real kid in a school cafeteria reacted to the loss of a lunchroom standard:
“In the past we always had an option for chicken nuggets or something else that was generally tasty, but this year we get a little sandwich or pizza made with wheat bread,” said a teen in a May news story.
I can totally relate.
Even under the best of circumstances, it is hard to be a student beholden to a school cafeteria for lunch. And it can be mentally and physically painful to cope with food changes if you’re a picky eater—take this from someone who still hasn’t fully graduated from severe food pickiness. It’s even more of a shock if your parents have always accommodated your food aversions.
It’s no walk in the park for the schools, either.
Not only is it a challenge to feed a picky eater—my husband and I have tried everything for our sons, from “hiding” vegetables in sauces to carving flowers and birds out of fresh, ripe fruit to no avail—but it is also expensive and emotionally exhausting.
The cafeterias had to retool their menus, their food costs went up and there was, no doubt, some measurable increase in the normal amount of food that children waste at lunchtime. And I bet the teachers got an earful of food complaints, too, during any class after lunch.
But the sacrifice, the adjustment pains and even the short-term waste will eventually pay off.
There is nothing more important to our children’s well-being than a real-world understanding of how to eat healthy.
Based on the number of children in this country who are malnourished—about 32 percent of kids ages 2-19 are considered to be overweight or obese—too few of the adults in our kids’ lives have this knowledge.
The more-stringent lunch guidelines are but a tiny ripple in the tsunami of food and nutrition awareness that has to happen so the current and next generations of children can learn how to sustain their bodies.
No one said it would be easy, but instinctively we’ve always known that children are capable of great learning and habituation. The research now maintains this as truth, even with scary new food.
This fall, support your local school’s efforts for more wholesome meals instead of reminiscing with your kids about the Tater Tots and pizza you chowed on as a child. They’ll never thank you for it, but they might live healthier lives as a result.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.