It was the gelatinous, flat, grey Salisbury Steak sandwich that finally got me off the hook from buying school lunches. Inviting my mother to have lunch with me at school one day resulted in me being able bring meals from home. Phew! In the early 1990s, salad bars and other vegetarian options were nonexistent in my public school lunchroom, and a homemade PB&J had more appeal and nourishment than my school’s daily dose of processed mystery meat. But thanks to voices both big (renown chef Jamie Oliver) and small (nine-year-old Martha Payne of NeverSeconds), the school lunch is facing a much needed overhaul. From nonprofits to state officials, more attention is being paid to what students eat and resulting consequences of poor test scores, attention spans and rising obesity rates.
Despite budget contraints and food availability, the conversation around the school lunchroom table is opening up to healthier choices and sustainable methods. Menus nowadays often include oven baked “fries” and whole grain pasta and bread, raw grapes and tomatoes in lieu of canned fruit. A recent study released in the Pediatrics medical journal shows that states with strict legislation to remove junk food from school cafeterias has resulted in lowering child obesity rates. Oliver has fueled the movement with his Food Revolution campaign aimed at removing sugary, processed foods from lunch trays while highlighting improved schools along the way.
Furthering the movement are initiatives to connect schools with local farms, such as Farm to School. Even the United States Department of Agriculture is getting involved to make small farmers the main food suppliers for student lunches.
It seems like the biggest struggle has been educating government and school officials, food service workers and parents that children’s success is dependent on the food choices they eat. Children have been more welcoming of whole grains, meats, fruits and vegetables that don’t require a can opener or a dictionary. Creating healthier lunch options for students is an ongoing conversation, but the changes are visible. Take a look at What’s For School Lunch to see for yourself!