Friday, April 29, 2011

Is it Healthy to Leave School Lunch to the Feds?

Is it Healthy to Leave School Lunch to the Feds?
Sarah Reid, RHNC

It used to be that having to eat a school “hot lunch” was something children dreaded, and avoided at all costs. The food was characteristically bad, the product of over-processed, over-cooked, and overly reheated foods the institutions relied on to keep costs under control and toe the basic government nutrition line. If you had a choice, chowing down on a baloney or peanut butter sandwich, baby carrots or grapes, a juice box and maybe even a cookie or two from your lunchbox meant escaping mushy peas and “mystery meat” with the mandatory milk carton from the lunch lady. In highschool there was a bit more choice of the matter – most of us made our own lunches or left the campus to eat, and the only items that ever sold out in the cafeteria were the French fries and onion rings. While there were several “Eat Smart” options on offer, and some were admittedly decent (especially when the cooking was taken over by the culinary arts students), the fact remained that it was over-processed, often bland or super-salty, and even the salads and wraps were limp and overdressed.

For those of us looking to keep the weight down (and tell me a pre-teen or teenage girl who isn’t) or avoid allergies, the school lunch was anathema. It was far better from a health perspective to pack yourself something, and the majority of us who did tended to have fewer sick days, better energy, less acne and even slightly better grades compared to the others! So with all those bonuses packed in a lunchbox, how would you feel if all of a sudden the lunchbox became as taboo in a school as a jar of peanut butter is today?

Well, some schools in the United States are banning lunches from home in favour of providing every student with a regulated hot meal. Doesn’t say much for the parents, does it? The principal of a Chicago public school, Elsa Carmona, has been quoted in the city’s major paper as saying her lunch policy is “about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve. It’s milk versus a Coke”. If students are unfortunate enough to have a medically-regulated diet (such as for allergies), they alone get a “free pass” from the lunch line. Everyone else has two options: eat a Carmona meal or go hungry the rest of the day. There are other schools following the same principle, all espousing the nutrition benefits of a school-made menu over a packed lunch. Funny that several children are acting out in protest and refusing to eat, since the States passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, ideally making school lunch programs more nutritious. It’s a proven fact that skipping meals often leads to unhealthy, impulsive overeating later in the day – and extra pounds. Obviously, the idea of fighting obesity and unhealthy habits through the Chicago schools’ method is somewhat flawed, and the formula is not about the health of the children! Forcing kids to buy into this “plan” is after all guaranteed revenue, since while the meals be mandatory, they’re not free. At $2.25 each, it can easily be more than a homemade similarly nutritious lunch, and over half of it is thrown out in disgust by would-be diners. Chocolate milk is still on offer, as it is still considered as healthy as white milk – regardless of the fact it has more sugar than the equivalent of soda.

Luckily, the school lunch programs are also being pressured by the American Dietetic Association to stop selling soda pop or sweets at all (although most still promote and sell sweetened, flavoured milk). The stumbling block is, as always, money. Schools earn extra (and guaranteed) revenue from junk-food sales, and general food prices are hitting the roof – to say nothing of what nutritious, wholesome offerings cost. It’s hard to tighten the purse-strings on the already strangled budget education institutions contend with, and while the government is willing to allow schools to serve up pre-packaged slop they won’t hand down the funding that the programs desperately need to make something healthy the kids might actually eat.

Though soft drinks should never have been in any school in the first place, removing the liquid, acidic drinks along with the chips and chocolate bars from the immediate reach of hungry kids and teens just might break habits before they form. But just like the bedroom, the government has no place in the private kitchens of the people, and we should be free to decline their invitations to dinner in favour of our own PB&J.

Sarah Reid is a Holistic Nutritional Consultant with her company NEW-trition