I’m so happy to have a guest post today from my friend Bettina Siegel. She’s the woman behind the blog The Lunch Tray, who tirelessly advocates for better food in schools, whether it’s getting the USDA to change its policy on using “pink slime” in school food ground beef or getting McDonald’s to scrap a “nutrition education” program in schools. She is a force! I asked her to write a post about why school food should matter to ALL parents–even those (like me) who pack lunches every day. Hope it inspires you to get involved!
Why You Should Care About School Food
by Bettina Elias Siegel
If you have a kitchen cabinet full of lunch box gear, you might not be paying much attention to the latest developments in school food policy. After all, why should you care about the federal school meal program if your own child doesn’t participate?
It’s understandable that many parents feel this way, but what’s going on in the cafeteria and larger school food environment actually affects all of us, even if our kids bring a packed lunch. Here’s why:
Because “School Food” Isn’t Just What’s on the Cafeteria Tray
When making the transition from preschool to elementary school, a lot of parents are surprised by the amount of food and drink offered or sold to their kids at school, totally apart from the cafeteria meal. For example, snacks and beverages are typically available through cafeteria “a la carte” lines, vending machines and school stores, and some states still allow a lot of on-campus junk food fundraising, such as donut or pizza sales to benefit the PTA or student groups. Even kids without money in their pockets might be given free “treats” on a regular basis, such as candy classroom rewards or the junk food served at class parties. All of those scenarios are regulated by federal and local school food rules and policies, and how those rules are drafted has real consequences for kids’ health – even the ones eating lunch from home.
Because We’re Investing in the Next Generation
Of the 31 million kids who do eat school food everyday, about two-thirds do so out of economic need. And for many of these students, food eaten at school (which can include breakfast, lunch and even after-school “supper”) comprises the bulk of their daily calories. Given the link between good nutrition and learning, as well as the long-term benefits of establishing healthy eating habits in childhood, it’s clearly in society’s best interest to feed the next generation well. Conversely, when kids grow into less healthy adults, we all pay the price of lost productivity, increased health care costs and other burdens associated with diet-related diseases. From that perspective, good school food is one of the best taxpayer investments we can make.
Because Cafeterias Could Be Classrooms
From a big picture standpoint, school cafeterias are actually doing a great job feeding kids: studies show that children who regularly eat the school meal get more nutrients and a wider array of nutrients than kids who rely on packed lunches. But due to inadequate funding and infrastructure, too many school districts have to rely on highly-processed, heat-n-eat foods to get the job done – a deal breaker for many health-minded parents.
Ideally, cafeterias could be classrooms in which we teach kids every day what healthful eating looks like. Instead of offering “better-for-you” versions of the processed junk food so prevalent outside of school, lunch lines could offer more fresh, scratch-cooked food made from whole ingredients, thereby increasing kids’ overall acceptance of these healthy foods.
That’s a goal most parents would embrace, and it’s already happening in some districts – often with the help of outside grants and private funding. But if parents on both sides of the political divide told their legislators that better-funded school food is a top priority, we might be able to make it a reality everywhere.
Because More Participation Can Drive Change
If you’re unhappy with your child’s school food, turning to home-packed lunches makes sense if you can afford it. But school nutrition programs live or die on participation: the more families buying school meals, the more money in the budget to improve the food served and vice versa. So when you opt for daily home-packed lunches, you may actually be contributing to the undesirable status quo.
Instead, consider forming a parent committee to meet with your district’s school nutrition services director to discuss the changes you’d like to see. (Do a little homework first to make sure your goals are feasible.) Then encourage families like yours to buy school meals to support those positive changes, showing the district that there is demand for better school food (and the dollars to help support it).
You might not be ready to trade in your child’s bento box for a meal card, but wouldn’t it be nice to hand off lunch prep to the cafeteria (at least some of the time), knowing you’d fully approve of what it’s serving? You can help make that goal a reality by staying informed about federal school food policy and supporting school food reform measures in your district and at the national level. Visit me at The Lunch Tray to learn how.
Bettina Elias Siegel is a writer and nationally recognized advocate on issues relating to children and food policy who blogs at The Lunch Tray. Her writing on children and food has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Houston Chronicle, the Huffington Post and in Civil Eats, a James Beard Award-winning food policy publication to which Siegel is a regular contributor.