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Hotchalk Global

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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

School Lunches That Don’t Stink: A Progress Report

by Monica Fuglei Have School Lunches Improved?


For a full school year, a teacher known only as “Mrs. Q” snuck back to her classroom and snapped a photo of her school lunch to post on her blog, Fed Up With Lunch. The site went viral and was eventually turned into a book, Fed Up With Lunch: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Truth About School Lunches. Along with many others, Mrs. Q called for a change to America’s school lunch program.

National school lunch program goal: high-quality ingredients, nutritious meals

First Lady Michelle Obama took up school lunches as a portion of her Let’s Move program to fight childhood obesity. In 2010, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) statutes were revised to change the quality of the lunches students receive at public schools, and many school kitchens are now involved in the significant task of changing menus in order to abide the new regulations.

In an attempt to win over young palates everywhere, Michelle Obama kicked off The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act by appealing directly to students. The redesign of the Federal Lunch program was intended to help curb obesity and provide healthier fare that included involvement by local farmers and expansion of kids’ diets when possible.

Healthy food vs. hungry teenagers

While some push-back is to be expected when large programs undergo major change, some of the first, most vocal critics of school lunch changes were students themselves. Referring to the controversial calorie limitations under the new act, students made a viral video called “We are Hungry.” 

Individual districts have expressed their displeasure as well, with several noting that students are throwing away large amounts of food or opting out of the school lunch program altogether. This has led to pushback, with some school districts considering leaving the program in order to return to the fare students seem to want. Interestingly, those districts list the very hot dogs and chicken nuggets Mrs. Q reviled as the highly-craved foods they are no longer able to serve their overly hungry students.

Schools adjust to changes with menu tastings and locally-sourced food

Such fundamental changes to the NSLP are bound to be met with growing pains as students and kitchens work to adjust to the new expectations, but some schools are working hard to improve the healthfulness of their lunches — and the taste. Prince William County, in Northern Virginia, recently held a tasting for students and their parents to explore the new potential menu options for their school lunch program and get parent and student feedback to adjust their offerings to the wants and desires of their families. Such efforts to be responsive to their target consumers can go far to help lunch programs meet with greater success.

Officials at the USDA argue that the changing menu inside schools reflects a changing menu at home – and that students themselves are requesting healthier, fresher options. The National Farm to School Program is an attempt to do just that: highlighting locally grown, fresh foods in school cafeterias by providing tasting samples or replacing a common side dish like french fries or canned fruit with fresh local options. Such relationships with local growers can pay off outside the schools as well. 

First steps to improve school lunches: Documentation & buy-in from students and parents

Even celebrity chefs are getting in on the school lunch improvement action. Chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution includes a section called School Food Revolution which provides a toolkit to empower parents and students to elicit change in cafeteria food on the local level. Ultimately, parental empowerment may be a key component to ensuring parent and student buy-in to changes in the lunch menu.

In her piece “How to Improve Your Student’s Lunch Program,” Sarah Henry suggests starting to improve school lunches by doing what Mrs. Q did — observing and documenting daily meals. Parents, teachers, and students can use their observations as a starting point for working with kitchens to abide the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act while still serving food that students will eat.

Some districts in the United States are holding strong with their membership in the school lunch program. In Scottsbluff, Nebraska, the schools have decided that participation in the school lunch program is worth the growing pains, and that given time, students will adapt to changes like 50 percent whole grains and increased amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables. In the end, it seems clear that while our school lunches are getting better for us, they might even be getting more enjoyable as well. 


Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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