The Cost of a Healthy School Lunch

Image courtesy of Fernanda Santos of The New York Times

With all the talk of childhood obesity these days, there’s a push to get healthier food in cafeterias. First Lady Michelle Obama is drawing attention to what children eat with her Let’s Move! initiative. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has called attention to childhood obesity and school lunches for years. Chicago school speech pathologist Sarah Wu chronicled a year of eating school lunches on her blog, Fed Up With Lunch (now out as a book, following the natural life cycle of all blogs). Last December, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law, which mandates healthier foods in school breakfasts and lunches.

So how are we doing?

Well, adequately. The new law has no strict timeline on when to implement changes, so many schools are still serving packaged food. The new law is prompting some drastic measures as well. In October, the Senate rejected a proposal that would limit the number of times a week schools can serve starchy vegetables. I have to applaud the vote. I understand wanting to provide healthy lunch options, but can’t we find a happy place between cookies passing as grains and the Federal government regulating how often kids are allowed to eat potatoes?

In the meantime, Congress made a high-profile vote to let pizza with two tablespoons of tomato paste count as a serving of vegetables. It’s been the source of many jokes and ridicule, but all joking aside, it’s a way to schools to say they’re providing more nutrition than they actually are. It’s a boon for frozen pizza manufacturers, but bad for students.

Elsewhere, some schools are struggling to meet the new nutritional demands. Schools in New York and Connecticut have raised lunch prices to meet demands, much to the chagrin of parents. Some have been quick to point out that new, healthy food regulations will cause a raise in prices, but would be counter-productive to cook nutritious meals that parents can’t afford to pay for.

Would you eat lunch from the cafeteria? Are there healthy organic options, and do those options cost significantly more?

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8 Responses to “The Cost of a Healthy School Lunch”

  1. SheilaJanuary 31, 2013 at 8:05 pm #

    I too have been a school lunch worker, manager,,,we have seen our lunch counts go down steadily with the now program…It is not school lunch that is causing obesity it’s what children eat at home and lack of exercise.
    I have worked over 30yr and it is sad that there are new guide lines that may put or school lunch program out of business…we have always offered fresh fruit or juce and other canned fruits..vegetable we always offered too..we have so much waste now that the children have to take a fruit or vegetable..the kids take the apple out to the cafeteria and throw it away….and why should they have to take the vegetable or fruit and not a milk makes no sense.
    Our lunch counts have dropped by 100 students a day just in one school…we always have also offered a salad lunch a yogurt lunch plus before the new rules we had two entrees a day..PBJ is always an option.
    tacos were always a favorite now they look at the wheat shell and ask for something else.
    wheat pizza shells are another turn off…plus they don’t rise well and look terrible
    I don’t want our program to go under so please do some thing about this

  2. Ruthie Marie Hughes CornNovember 6, 2012 at 12:51 am #

    Janise needs to work in her school cafeteria. Get real! These kids are not eating this stuff and I wouldn't either. The Obama's need to get out of the school cafeteria's!

  3. Ruthie Marie Hughes CornNovember 6, 2012 at 12:44 am #

    Get real! I am a cafeteria manager in a low income area. I have been trying to feed the healthy foods in my cafeteria also. The kids won't eat these healthy foods, they want the comfort foods that they are use to at home. My lunch count has been cut in half and they bring candy and chips in their lunches not to mention the expense of all these fresh fruits and vegetables. THIS IS NOT WORKING! We are putting more on their plates to be thrown away!

  4. Phyllis VialardSeptember 21, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

    This new regulation is a nightmare . I cook and serve K-5 .More vegetables are better for kids, i agrre, but Mom and dad have to do that from the time the kids eat table food. To make this the responcibility of the Food service Company is preposterous. Michelle Obama needs to get real. You canNOT fight Hunger and Obesity at the same time. I have hungry kids that need the free meals offered and they don’t need green beans. most of them get rice and beans at home,they need the protein that is derived from meat and cheese. Not to mention the fast food so many of them get for dinner, thats why they are obese-poor nutrition at home,and no exercise. Stop trying to make the schools raise your kids to be healthy and happy,some it has to come from home.Start there and let the schools teach them what they need to learn.I can put as much sauted swiss chard as I want on their plates,but they aren’t going to eat it. eating it is the point.That comes from home.

  5. Shane BrownSeptember 4, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    Are you kidding me, thanks to President Obama and The First Lady Michelle Obama, and others. Whatever. It is getting really old when the youth of school children are all compared based on the same standard. How can you even compare the make-up of a small town in Montana to that of a city in Washington D.C. In my area children walk, just for the fun of doing this activity. the children play outside regularly, continuous outdoor activities that keep them from gaining weight that you might see from a sedentary lifestyle such as that of a child in the larger cities. But we will all treat them the same, regardless, because on their (Obama's) local level they see a high number of obese children. My children are not overweight. As active as they can be, and when they are hungry they should be fed. Now under the new Obama nutrition plan, they do not get enough food, and when they ask for more they are turned away, because a few children who are overweight would have to be treated the same.
    What a bunch of bull, very frustrated that my children have to starve because a few students are overweight and some think that cutting back on the food they eat and what types of food are consumed will solve the problem. These overweight students still have a home they go to, what do you think they will eat there, now they will learn to binge eat when at home to make up for lost food consumption at school. Yep, great plan.

    • Gregory ChristiansenSeptember 5, 2012 at 3:24 am #

      We are handing away our freedom for free stuff… Unfortunately, schools are too poor to refuse funding. What scares me (even more than this angers me) is that if government does indeed take over the healthcare system, they will have a huge financial incentive to try and regulate what ALL of us eat in our homes. And even I can think up some clever ideas of how they can try and do that.

    • Bill Kornec Sr.September 5, 2012 at 3:29 am #

      Well stated! I was not so nice on my site :)

  6. Janise WestMay 30, 2012 at 12:34 am #

    Before we can think about the option of organic food, we have to address the problem of feeding our children pre-packaged and canned food. Both are void of the nutrients that are needed for building muscles and bones, as well as brain function.
    First we have to focus on providing fresh produce, dairy, milk that is not flavored and protein in every form. If we can get food that is prepared on a daily basis into the school lunch program. Show the benefits of real food oppossed to the processed food. Then the next step would be organic. Unfortunately this is going to take some time.
    Thanks to the efforts of the President Obama and The First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as Jamie Olivier and those who support him, maybe the time will be shortened.