Why school kids aren’t eating healthy lunches
The Somerville, Mass., school lunch program, like many others across the country,
has been redesigned to give elementary students healthier choices for lunch. Three
registered dietitians, including group leader Mary Joan McLarney, make sure that
the 3,600 lunches served daily are as nutritious as possible.
This goes far beyond substituting fresh fruit for sugary fruit?flavored drinks. The
Somerville dietitians say they are trying to break the cycle common among low income
and middle?class Americans who are dramatically shortening their lives by
eating too much of the wrong foods, even when better alternatives are available. The
dieticians realize that their work is potentially powerful, but limited, similar to
doctors who prescribe medications that patients don’t use. “It’s all great to do this,”
McLarney says, with a sigh. “If the kids don’t take the food and don’t eat it, we have
accomplished nothing. We have failed.”
McLarney’s frustration is common among those fighting one of the most pressing
social epidemics in the United States. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which
oversees the National School Lunch Program, plans to roll out new guidelines next
fall that are intended to change the landscape for school lunches, those on the front
lines wonder how new rules and more money can change what has become such an
epic problem that it has lowered life expectancy for American children for the first
McLarney represents the hope that good nutrition, combined with good food
education, can change children’s understanding of food as fuel rather than as a
reward or comforter. She faces an uphill battle. There are some obvious reasons for
• Children are inundated with bad messages about eating from television,
peers, and parents.
• School lunches are really only a small part of what children eat – five out of
21 meals (assuming the traditional breakfast, lunch, dinner) during the week,
not counting between?meal snacks. Schools are serving better foods, but they
are still not as healthy as they could be. This is either because kids will not
eat them or because healthier food programs take staff, time, and money to
• Even when schools serve healthy foods that children are willing to eat,
scheduling problems may severely limit the amount of time that children
have to eat. And some schools schedule lunches as what many adults would
consider a late breakfast instead of the traditional noon meal.
Still, despite these obstacles, dietitians such as McLarney see school lunch programs
as the best means that schools have available to change students’ behavior. In
Somerville, as in many communities, the school lunch is often the most complete
and nutritious meal that children eat all day. And a school setting allows
professional dietitians to introduce desirable habits and behaviors, such as trying
new foods or choosing locally grown foods over prepackaged staples. And they can
offer these messages without having to compete for children’s attention with a
television set or other distractions.
It is, however, a David vs. Goliath?style battle with stakes that are enormous.
Statistics released in 2008 from the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control and
Prevention (CDC) paint a grim picture about how much junk food students eat
outside of school and its impact. According to the CDC, “The prevalence of obesity
among children aged 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past 20 years, going from
6.5% in 1980 to 17.0% in 2006.” Today more than 67% of Americans are considered
obese, and that number is projected to grow.
Can spoiled taste buds be retrained?
Dietitians in the schools are not the only ones concerned about children not eating
healthy foods, of course. Parents like Kari Sciera of Wellesley face a daily problem:
getting children to eat wholesome foods after they have become accustomed to the
flavors and textures of highly processed fare, much of which is full of sugar and fat.
Of course, food quality varies greatly from school district to school district, and even
from school to school. It is surprising that school lunches, which for decades have
had a bad reputation because of low?quality food, are often labeled as “nasty” by
children even when a few programs, such as Somerville’s, offer entrees that rival
what most adults expect to be served in mid?scale restaurants.
Sciera, who teaches health and physical education at Wellesley Middle School, says
that the lunches served at her daughters’ elementary school are actually too healthy.
“In schools they incorporated whole?grain spaghetti, and there’s a kiss of death,”
says Sciera. “My kids will never eat that. If I make my kids buy their lunch every day,
it would just be a waste. They would rather go hungry than eat something that they
So Sciera, who says her children are finicky eaters, packs lunches every day. “I am
not hitting them out of the park when it comes to health food, but I am not trying to
send them with junk that will make them feel like crap when I pick them up.”
That message resonates in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, which is
geographically on the opposite end of the Boston metro area from Wellesley.
“I hear all the time kids say they can’t eat school lunches, that it’s nasty,” said
Charlotte Stephenson, a registered dietitian who is part of the three?person team in
Somerville. She also is a part?time nutritional counselor who works with obese and
overweight children at the Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester; experience
lets her see different sides of the problem. “They will just not eat anything until they
get out of school and go to the corner store and eat junk food,” she says.
Stephenson’s advice comes down to basics: serve foods that kids want to eat. The
simplest way possible to find out what they want is by asking them. Stephenson
holds regular meetings with students in Somerville so school administrators can
understand how to optimize choices to accommodate students’ taste. “Turns out the
kids like raw veggies, rather than cooked,” says Stephenson, “This is something we
can certainly do.”
Stephenson believes that the standard cafeteria fare is aimed at curbing obesity by
serving nutritious foods that kids like to eat. “If we know that there are foods that
kids do not want to eat we aren’t going to serve it because the purpose of the school
lunch program is to nourish the kids and make sure that they eat,” Stephenson says.
“We have been working really hard to improve, so if we get some more means we
can take it to an even better place.”
McLarney agrees that improving lunch means catering to children’s taste buds, even
if it means not serving the absolute healthiest items available. To help children
discover that healthy foods aren’t so bad she has to compromise. “So a lot of time we
have to pull back because we try to do all whole grains, but kids will just not take it.
We had whole grain pizzas and whole grain breads but the kids weren’t getting in
the lunch line and didn’t want that,” “McLarney said, “It’s been a balancing act. Some
of the stuff we try to just slide it in, like sun butter on wheat bread. Since they like it
and like the yogurt it comes with, they are taking it, even though it’s on wheat
Advertising messages effectively push unhealthy foods
Children’s taste preferences aren’t the only factor, of course. Marketing junk food to
kids is a gigantic factor. Children are the prime targets of advertising to sell sugary
cereals, snacks, candy and drinks. Research shows exposure to these a high daily
dose of TV commercials trains children to value these junk foods and helps shape
their eating patterns as adults.
“Young people view more than 40,000 ads per year on television alone and
increasingly are being exposed to advertising on the Internet, in magazines and in
schools,” says the Official Journal of the Academy of Pediatrics, in a study put out in
2008. “This exposure may contribute significantly to childhood and adolescent
obesity, poor nutrition, and cigarette and alcohol use.”
A study released this January by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale
University found that 16 major companies that promised to market healthier cereals
to children have not. The study found that the companies had cut the amount of
sugar in cereals, but were still marketing them aggressively according to the blog
"When we looked at the nutritional quality of the cereal, we realized it's not just that
companies are marketing unhealthy products to children," Jennifer Harris, lead
author of the Yale study, told the Chicago Tribune. "It's that they are only marketing
A similar story comes out of Ireland, where outraged parents accuse Kellogg
Company of hypocrisy when it advertised cocoa puffs as a healthy after school snack
while the company participated in a government program on childhood obesity
reported the Belfast Telegraph.
“The result of this [advertising] is that kids think that they will die if they don’t have
junk food,” says Ann Cooper, a chef?turned?school?lunch crusader who is the author
of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children.
Cooper says it is up to adults to promote healthy eating by being more informed
about the foods they serve to children. She encourages schools and parents to take
children to farmers markets, farms, and even just to the grocery store.
Good intentions gone awry
While many foods that are less processed and contain lower sodium are being
offered in public schools, many health officials are still worried that the items in
schools are not as healthy as they could be. The USDA has found that lunches had
higher levels of fat and saturated fats than what the department recommended. A
USDA report found that in 2007 only one in five schools served lunches that met the
standard for total fat, set at 30 percent of calories or less.
A prime example is chocolate milk. While some argue it has nutritional value
because of the milk that contains calcium, some schools are trying to ban this
favorite drink because of the added sugar.
“There is no reason to serve kids all that sugar, especially with the obesity crisis
going on,” Cooper said. Chocolate milk has the same amount of sugar as the soft
drinks that are banned in most schools. “We really should be teaching kids what
milk takes like, not sugar. Most of it has high fructose corn syrup anyways. It’s an
unnecessary part of a child’s day.” She suggests that parents give their kids
chocolate milk at home as a special treat.
Eliminating foods that students enjoy can lead to unintended consequences, such as
children eating nothing. But Cooper believes parents and teachers need to be firm.
Rather than giving children a sweet as a bribe or a reward, Cooper says other
rewards, such as stickers, have the same positive effect.
“Parent education is huge,” said Stephen Billhardt, principal of Cunniff Elementary
School in Watertown, Mass., “But schools can only do so much. We use our
PE teacher to help and I occasionally send home parent letters on nutrition.”
Billhardt recently announced that the school had eliminated junk food items like
sundaes from the cafeteria.
Being a positive role model also includes not eating in front of the television or a
computer. A study conducted by the School of Public Health Project EAT at the
University of Missouri found that children and families who watch TV while eating
meals together showed a definite link to the development of childhood obesity. The
2005 study also found that interventions that reduce children’s media time resulted
in weight loss. Dianne Neumark Sztainer, Ph.D., main researcher of the Project EAT
study, suggests one important reason why this takes place. “The television may be
influencing the types of foods that adolescents choose to eat because of the
advertisements they see.”
Making time to eat
One issue that would seem to be under schools’ control is when students eat their
lunches and how much time they have. However, as schools struggle to meet federal
and state curriculum mandates, lunchtime has been shortened and some children
eat “lunch” as early as 10:30 a.m.
According to the Journal of Child Nutrition and Management, “The average total time
spent in a cafeteria for service –including travel time to the table, and bussing –was
20 minutes for elementary and middle schools.” School lunch lines can take from
seven to twelve minutes to serve food and students have just seven minutes to eat.
Most schools have even combined recess within the lunch period. USDA Health
Policy Guidelines from 2000 recommend that students be given at least 20 minutes
Kari Sciera, the teacher with two young daughters in Wellesley, says time was a big
problem for her daughter when she was in kindergarten. “I would pick her up at
three o’clock and she would have eaten nothing from 8:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. She
would be melting down and crying, ‘I’m starving!’ I would ask her, ‘Honey why
didn’t you eat your lunch?’ She would see the kids on the playground and want to
play and not realize that it’s eat now or never. So that was a problem.”
Chef Cooper believes that a simple way to solve this problem would be to have lunch
“Kids decide they want to go off to play and have a bite or two of their lunches and
throw it away and won’t eat. That’s reality,” said Cooper, “If kids get to run around
and burn off some energy they [become] hungry and they’re more likely to sit down.
If the only place they have to go to after lunch is back to class than they are more
likely to sit and eat.”
The Journal of Children Nutrition and Development found, in multiple studies that
recess before lunch causes children to “consume significantly more food and
nutrients and waste less food.” But less than five percent of elementary schools
schedule recess before lunch.
Time is also an issue in Somerville. “That’s a giant challenge because we don’t have
enough time during lunch to have them sit down,” says McLarney. “By the end of the
line the kids have a really hard time eating and finishing lunch and then they go out.”
McLarney says there is not enough staff available to supervise children if they have
longer lunch times.
Some parents are upset that school lunches are scheduled so early in the morning.
Linda Corr, a pharmaceutical sales representative who works in Boston, said that
she wished her 12?year?old son had at least 30 minutes to eat and that it be in the
middle of the day. “At school they eat early in the morning, at 10:30 a.m. or 11, so he
is starving most of the day,” said Corr, “He starts school at 8 and stays after school
for homework club so he doesn’t really eat a snack until 4:30 p.m. That is a long
Cooper believes schools are concerned more about bettering their productivity level
than feeding their students. This has direct impact on when and how long school
lunches are. “It’s all about test scores and how many minutes there are in the day,”
says Cooper, “I believe lunch should be lunchtime. Lunches shouldn’t be just 15 or
A long battle for students’ health
For all the hard work and anxiety that millions of parents and the school officials
who focus on bettering school lunch nutrition face, obesity continues to grow while
students are not getting proper nutrition. This can be confusing and disheartening.
Despite this, McLarney feels optimistic and resolutely promises that, “We will not go
back to serving junk food like we had in the past.” She believes that one of the main
reasons schools are becoming healthier is that school lunches are now being
prepared on site and have passionate people working to better them.
“School lunch is really rewarding,” says McLarney, “So for us, we really give them
the best food that we can. We are really trying to focus, to get them fresh fruits and
vegetables, fiber, and trying to introduce whole grains. It’s all been a slow process.”