Journalism Award Winning Submissions
Food Policies in our Public School System
In today’s society, it seems that everyone from the government to Disney channel stars is promoting a healthier standard of living. However, one can look at the public school system’s food policy and realize it still has a long way to go in order to be classified as nutritious.
It’s true that the food being served now is better nutritionally than it was five years ago, but at what cost? The food that is supposedly nutritious-such as salads, sits on the shelves while items such as pizza and chicken nuggets have to be constantly replenished by the cafeteria staff.
“A lot of the food served has had a lower amount of sugars, fats, and salt, but it’s at the cost of taste,” said Principal Doug Guthrie.
It seems simple, just replacing the bland food with fruits that contain natural sugars and other tasteful and healthy items. Alas, it seems the biggest problem with any policy is cost. Due to the supply and demand of healthier foods, companies raise the prices of fresher produce, so it is in fact more costly to buy.
“It’s true that vegetables and fruits cost more than starches and breads. What school boards have to figure out is a balance between cost and nutrition level,” said Florida Representative Bryan Nelson.
Why is it more expensive to buy organic? One reason is that agrochemical farming is heavily subsidized by taxes while organic farming does not gain any subsidy. Another reason why it is cheaper to buy agrochemical products is because the chemicals are in fact designed to produce its product faster. With a higher rate in production, of course the chemically treated food will be cheaper; there’s more of it.
Despite it being more expensive to buy organic, there are other ways that the government can find a way to provide students with healthier and tastier foods. One way is to allow the agricultural departments at schools to provide fresh produce, such as herbs and vegetables, to the cafeteria to provide to the students.
However, in Orange County in particular, schools are not allowed this option. Due to “safety concerns”, schools don’t even have the choice to provide food they grow themselves. But many students would rather eat locally grown produce instead of chemically treated and/or frozen byproducts.
“I bring my lunch to school every day because of the fact the school food is pretty disgusting. If they were to provide healthier and tastier options, I would be more inclined to purchase from the school,” said senior Nick Hilliard.
The food policies of the nation’s public schools’ systems do not (at this point) promote a healthier diet. Some of the policies actually allow french fries be considered as not just a vegetable, but a fresh vegetable at that.
However, there does seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. The USDA has implemented many changes that started in the 2012-2013 school year that are on their way to allowing healthier options in school menus.
“As the USDA moves forward with its implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, please be assured that I will work to provide adequate funding for programs and initiatives that improve the welfare of our school children,” said Florida Senator Bill Nelson.
Despite the foods eaten by today’s youth either being too unhealthy or not tasty enough to even attempt to eat in the cafeteria, there are those who are creating a movement toward healthier, and tastier school foods. They are people at schools, households, and businesses who are finally realizing that there needs to be a change, and that change needs to be implemented as quickly and effectively as possible.
So what can Orange County do to make school foods more approachable without having to change policy that might take years to change? One suggestion that has been made is to add a dietary specialist. Mr. Guthrie is in support of this proposed idea.
“In one way, I think that the district is doing a very good thing. They are looking at calories, salts and sugars [but] the one thing they aren’t looking at is the taste and presentation [of the food]. To have a culinary expert work in tandem with a dietary specialist is the way to go. You can compensate by adding a few calories here and there just so that the food is more presentable to the students,” said Guthrie.
In order to create a better future for the upcoming generations, the time is now to reform how children nourish themselves, and there is no better place than to start with schools.
Chew on This
Kitchen volunteers churn out huge quantities of food—1,750 chicken strips on Thursdays and 396 personal pizzas on Fridays. The options span the spectrum of nutritional value. You could belly up to the salad bar, but is free will guiding you toward potato wedges and nachos?
Apples and Oranges
The hard-working kitchen staff makes an effort to offer healthy options but faces big obstacles. One goal is to keep lunches affordable. Having a mostly volunteer grew helps the bottom line, and managers contract with Food Services of America (FSA). The company passes volume discounts onto its customers. However, some inexpensive meals offered by FSA have high fat and calories and few vitamins and minerals. Among the relished items are the Fiesta Salad (440 cals, 28g fat), Mini Pizza (400 cals, 10g fat), Mac and Cheese (380 cals, 18g fat), and Bean Burrito (350 cals, 17g fat). Not every student is willing to give up high quality food for lunchtime savings.
“I always pack my own lunch,” said sophomore Katie Sandquist. “I wish the school lunches were healthier.”
According to USDA, a moderately active male and female between the ages of 15 and 18 should consume 2,800 and 2,000 calories per day, respectively to avoid the childhood obesity epidemic plaguing our nation. While a Mini Pizza only eats up a fifth of allotted calories, most students don’t stop at one pizza—they pile on a couple cookies and a smoothie.
“If you’re willing to spend some money, you can have a well-balanced meal,” said senior Mackenzie Croy, who buys hot lunch every day.
Cost is an important factor in students’ lunchtime decisions. Burritos at $1 outsell chicken kabobs and rice at $3.25. Cost is not the only driver.
Not Your Cup of Tea
Healthier options include a salad bar, brown rice and yogurt, but managers say these items are less popular. It only take a glance at the line to see that hundreds of students wait for burritos and pizza while only a handful cluster around the salad bar.
“There are more options I’m not pursuing because I get set in habits and buy whatever looks good,” said Croy.
She wonders if the best way to promote healthy eating would be to make nutritious food the only option.
It’s a tactic being employed in places like New York City where the Board of Health banned the sale of large sodas. According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Pediatrics, junk food laws are helping to reduce childhood obesity, but many reject the “Nanny State” regulations. Ms. Candi Prentice, energetic lunch coordinator since 1989, is not ready to eliminate inexpensive staples.
“I can’t be the food police, and by high school kids need to make their own decisions,” said Ms. Prentice. “At the beginning of the year we had fresh celery and carrots, but we had to take them off the menu because no one was buying them.”
Walking on Eggshells
Ms. Prentice has fewer options for the items sold because of the size of her 60-year-old kitchen. Built to feed 400, it’s now serving 1,265; it’s half the recommended size of a modern school kitchen according to one state guideline for new school facilities.
Given the limited space, the workspace allows almost exclusively for items that can be easily reheated and served instead of homemade.
In a Nutshell
Less processed, locally grown food would be more nutritional and sustainable. According to Oregon.gov, “when you buy from local sources..., it reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.”
While Prentice tries to select local food from the FSA menu, a lot of food must be transported from hundreds of miles away. According to its website, the FSA does pay attention to sustainability, with a particular eye to “lowered consumption…and eco-friendly products.” In fact, FSA is partnering with the local environmentalist group Ecotrust to launch the Farm to School Program to bring locally grown and processed foods to some receptive school.
Here’s something to chew on: are students willing to pay more for healthy food that’s grown locally? Are Jesuit leaders prepared to enlarge the kitchen so our cooks can serve up less processed food? The complicated recipe for great lunches will continue to simmer.
Revised federal guidelines for school lunches left a bitter taste among some Kansas teachers and students, who took to the Internet to protest the food standards by creating a YouTube video parody.
The viral video, entitled We Are Hungry, features students from Wallace County High School in Sharon Springs, Kansas blasting federal calorie restrictions to the tune of “We Are Young,” a recent music hit by the band “Fun.” Among the lyrics:
Give me some seconds, I,
I need to get some food today
My friends are at the corner store
Getting junk so they don’t waste away…
The video parody is part of the nationwide backlash against the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010, which required public schools to implement new nutritional guidelines this academic year in order to receive extra federal funding.
The standards for school lunches mandate that schools serve larger portions of fruits and vegetables daily, phase in whole grains, follow calorie and sodium limits, and offer only 1% low-fat or fat-free milk. Meat and carbohydrate portions are smaller. The overall cost of implementing these changes is projected at $3.2 billion.
The policy was designed to reduce childhood obesity which, according to the CDC, now affects nearly one-third of children and adolescents in America. The plan was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama as a component of her “Let’s Move!” campaign to inspire a healthier generation of young adults.
However, the revised nutritional guidelines have been met with criticism on all sides. Students complained that the lunches were bland and tasteless, and that the servings were insufficient to fill them up. While fruits and vegetable portions were increased, many students expressed disinterest in them and simply tossed them away. In some parts of the nation, students’ dissatisfaction with school food resulted in boycotts and protests.
In fact, experts pointed to the growing number of purchases of competitive foods, such as chips and cookies, as alternatives to unappealing school lunches. These foods undermine the methodical nutrition guidelines.
The Need for Reform
The movement for wholesome yet fulfilling school lunches has national interests at heart because the meals affect every aspect of a community. With about 32 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program, the need for reform is increasingly urgent.
One of the most pressing concerns in the American public health sphere is the crisis of obesity and diet-related illnesses. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, obesity increases the risk of various diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, stroke and cancers. The trend of overweight and obese young people is troubling, in part because it symbolizes an unhealthy shift in eating habits and nutrition choices within society.
However, it is critical to remember that kids spend two-thirds of their waking hours at school and consume about 30% to 50% of their daily calories there, according to the website for National School Lunch Week. It follows that school meals are instrumental to creating the mindset that meals can be wholesome and still satisfy hunger. Providing “healthy” schools meals that are appear to be skimpy or unappetizing only encourages students to seek out junk food.
Moreover, research indicates that improved nutrition is linked to higher academic performance, particularly on standardized exams. The organization Action for Healthy Kids reports that proper nutrition contributes to increased cognitive function, attention and memory. Undernourished students are more likely to repeat a grade or require more special education and mental health services. Hungry teens are also more likely to be suspended from school and experience social problems. The educational performance of entire student bodies may depend on something as fundamental as the meals they receive at school.
Demographic analysis and economic realities transform the issue of school nutrition into one of social justice and further underscore the urgent need for reform. Almost two-thirds of students participating in the National School Lunch Program receive free or subsidized lunches because they hail from lower-income families. The House Committee on Education and Labor reports that in 2008, over 16 million children lived in homes without access to enough nutritious food. For many, school meals are the only chance at a healthy meal all day. With economic conditions deteriorating steadily, this pattern of need may continue to escalate, thus warranting a second look at school nutrition.
Fortunately, solutions exist that cater to the tastes of students while making a statement for environmentally friendly methods. In order for progressive reforms to be made to school meals, federal and local governments should coordinate to establish regional food systems, promote positive views of organically grown produce, and conserve resources by regulating food waste.
Food service in most school districts is provided by industrially run farms. According to the Grace Communications Foundation, these corporate farms wreak havoc on the nation’s environment by polluting air, surface water, and groundwater, consuming excessive amounts of fossil fuels and water resources and degrading soil quality. In addition, significant ecological damage is caused by the 1,500 to 3,000 miles of transportation needed to bring food to students in schools. Instead, school districts should turn to local farms that use sustainable practices, such as reduced pesticide use, no-till agriculture and minimal to no packaging for their farm products.
The Farm to School Grant Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture serves as a model example of a government initiative that can generate student interest in organic fruits and vegetables while reducing costs for school districts to partner with regional food systems. A focus on nearby farms could personalize the food experience while stimulating local economies by creating jobs and increase community revenue.
School Lunch: Facing the Facts
When Oakland Tech senior Trey Young was asked how he was enjoying his cafeteria lunch one Monday afternoon, he slowly raised an eyebrow and replied, “These soggy vegetables? Not on smack. I really doubt that they have any nutritional value anymore.”
What we can have no doubts about, though, is that our schools need to focus on offering their students the best food available. To be fair, the state and individual schools have taken important measures to increase the quality of cafeteria food, but there still remain major problems that need to be addressed.
Tech sophomore Yin Zhang eats at the cafeteria regularly, but she is not convinced that what she is eating is healthy for her. “A lot of the food is oily,” she says. “It doesn’t look good.” One thing the school could do to make the food healthier, she adds, is to offer more fruits and vegetables. Zhang makes a valid suggestion. According to a report made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of high school students eat vegetables less than once a day. This falls far below the recommended levels of intake (the food pyramid calls for three to five servings per day), and vegetables are not what students should be avoiding. Eating plenty of veggies can help prevent heart disease, stroke, and some forms of cancer – and by vegetables, I don’t mean tomato paste or ketchup (yes, two tablespoons of tomato paste counts as a vegetable in school cafeterias, thanks to legislation passed in 2011). It seems reasonable, then, that schools make these fresh foods more available to students.
As recent studies have shown, fighting cancer and other diseases isn’t the only thing healthy food can do for you. Research has proven that children who eat fresh cooked whole foods at school are less likely to suffer from behavioral issues and lack of focus as opposed to those who eat meals high in sugar, sodium, and fat. In 2007, a British study found that certain food dyes and preservatives can increase hyperactivity in students. In 2010, Australian research supported the British study as it linked children’s consumption of processed meats and artificial colors to high risk of developing ADHD. What’s more, schools that have removed unhealthy food from their cafeterias have seen an uptick in students’ test scores and a decrease in behavioral problems.
Obviously, healthy food is the best choice for schools to offer their students. But if schools want to go the extra mile, offering sustainable food is the way to go. Mr. Diaz, Oakland Tech’s AP Environmental Science teacher, defines sustainable food as “healthy and accessible to everyone.” Sustainable food is also environmentally friendly, because it isn’t loaded with chemicals, and it promotes the humane treatment of animals. By integrating sustainable food into lunch programs, schools would be promoting the health of their students and the environment around them.
The message is clear: healthy food is what all schools should be offering their students. More than a third of American children are obese or overweight, and according to a 2010 study conducted by the University of Michigan, children who eat school lunches are even more likely to be overweight than those who bring food from home. Hopefully, we will change that, one cafeteria at a time.
They’re everywhere – stores, street corners and now ... schools?
They’re unhealthy foods, and they’re the primary contributor to the American obesity crisis.
For years, Americans and their children have steadily been getting bigger and growing unhealthier. The epidemic has been a concern of nutritionists nationwide, particularly in the case of adolescent obesity.
This raises the question: Are schools contributing to the problem? Or to the solution?
Matthew Mayers, a local farmer’s market organizer, works with elementary school students to teach healthy decision making.
“Schools certainly have an important role to play,” Mayers said.
He points out the effects of food choices on behavior and how junk foods can cause crankiness.
“Kids, in general, who have good eating habits … do better,” Mayers said.
He said that it is often the habit of cafeteria workers to reheat food and avoid actual cooking. This method forces cafeterias to serve highly processed foods instead of foods from “sustainable and local sources.”
Additionally, serving processed foods from outside sources can affect the local economy, Mayers said. Sourcing lunches from local farmers would not only provide fresher foods, but it would keep money circulating within the community.
Such changes, however, could come with a big price tag that could potentially raise the cost of lunches. In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County high schools, breakfast costs $2.10 and lunch is $2.65. Raising production costs may raise the cost of meals, which could translate into bad news for many students.
Still, Reynolds High School and Chartwells, the food provider for WS/FCS, are making efforts to encourage healthy eating. In the past two years, the Reynolds cafeteria has made many changes in favor of serving healthier foods, such as eliminating deep fryers and white bread.
Cafeteria manager Jennifer Bryant said that pizza is definitely the most popular food in the Reynolds lunch room. However, since the cafeteria switched over to serving fresh produce, many fruits and vegetables have gotten more attention.
“I personally think they could do a little better,” sophomore Kirsten Watson said. “The main foods they serve are things like pizza, hamburgers and chicken sandwiches.”
Chartwells encourages cafeterias to use promotions to help students make healthier decisions, such as “No Meat Monday.” In such a promotion, students can buy vegetarian entrées and be entered into a drawing for a prize.
“They always recommend that you get a fruit or vegetable with the meal you buy,” Watson said.
Food for Thought
The hippie population is growing here at Traverse City West, as we are a green school- meaning that we engage in environmentally friendly activities like recycling, and teaching units on alternative energy. Yet these titles are a nominal reason for pursuing sustainability within our school system- the real case for environmentalism is the idea of lessening our impact on the environment and improving the health of our students. This is paramount to the focus of this article: the dreaded school lunches. Now this should differ from your typical deploration of school lunches, lamenting the calamitous constraint of the alfredo sauce or the ice cream sandwiches. I fundamentally agree with the idea of creating healthier school lunches, although Mrs. Obama may be approaching it the wrong way. Basing our school-served meals around sustainable and organic eating practices is at least as important as ensuring that we choose a well-balanced amount of fruits and vegetables and the other regulatory mishmash that the government has set out for us. And despite this and all other hindrances- healthy and sustainable school food is the attainable goal that should be a priority not only to the administration, but to the students.
Now the main agency making these decisions is the USDA, (Department of Agriculture) which is coupled with the School Nutrition Foundation. Michael Taylor, the Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service in the USDA, has been revolving between the USDA, FDA (Food and Drug Administration), and Vice Presidency of the agribusiness company Monsanto long enough to make a watchful consumer wonder. I find this particularly appalling, and deserving of later explanation. More locally, and more optimistically, Gary Derrigan is the director of Food Services for our district, covering at least eighteen schools in the area, and providing over 6,000 meals a day while receiving 47 cents per meal in government subsidies. On January 15th we had a “lunchroom audit” in our cafeteria to ensure that we were complying with the rules laid down for us, in return for this money. Derrigan and our local food initiatives do understand our need for healthy and sustainable foods and are attempting to hop the hurdles to gain more locally and sustainably produced food. Currently much of our lunchroom food arrives via Gordon Food Service refrigerated semi trucks, fresh from Grand Rapids where it is unloaded, prepared in the kitchen before we mindlessly fill our plates, and subsequently, our faces.
These large quantities that we consume daily are one of the obstacles in the path towards eating locally. Another hurdle is the requirement for our food sources to be GAP certified (for Good Agricultural Practices, where farmers have to jump through innumerable hoops for the USDA to label them safe for consumption). Our obviously limited growing season (as I huddle around our fireplace) is a similar check to progress, along with the higher prices that small farmers have to charge in order to survive in the big pond. This is the reasoning for going to less local businesses like GFS, although we also obtain foods from Cherry Capital Foods which is based here in Traverse City and purchases from local farmers.
Along with a products' 'food miles', another factor in a food's health and sustainability is, of course, the way it is grown. Part of this includes the modern phenomenon known as GMOs or Genetically Modified Organisms entering our food supply. These are plants, and now, a certain species of salmon, that biotechnology companies, including giant pesticide manufacturer Monsanto, have altered. They change their DNA to achieve higher crop yields or to be resistant to, for instance, Roundup herbicides, which are- astoundingly- produced by the same biotech company. Beyond the fact that these crops have caused organ failure and infertility in preliminary test subjects, these 'frankenfoods', once disseminated, cannot be recalled, and can contaminate a neighboring field up to a mile away with GM genes. In this case the biotech company will dutifully sue the neighboring farmer for their intellectual property. For how dare they fail to quarantine their crops against the GM onslaught?
Yet still, with more than 40,000 acres of farmland in use in Leelanau County alone, we should be able to get more local produce for our meals. For perspective, I've done my fair share of work on a Northern Michigan farm, where, by farming not more than two acres, and canning and preserving for winter months, we were able to provide most of the food for our family for a year. With some full-year employees dedicated to securing sustainable, local food throughout the growing season, I think that we could achieve a similar feat with our schools. Or better yet, a class with a focus on agriculture could oversee food purchasing, even help harvest in the fall, plant in the Spring, or cultivate a greenhouse in the interim. And think of all the good that this would bring to the local economy- especially since $97.7 million-worth is contributed annually by agriculture. Remember, that the first step to creating change in this arena is to start informed conversations and raise awareness about the issue- although I've found roaming the halls and proclaiming “Free veggies for everyone, man!” and flashing your peace signs works just as well.
With people like Gary Derrigan, Trish, and the rest of our hardworking lunchroom staff, on our side, I can't help but be optimistic. As more and more people become aware and informed about the food choices that they make, and regulatory agencies come under the guidance of those that they regulate, we will continue along the path of sustainable foods, but there's no need to be complacent now- it's up to us to blaze the trail- or plod along it carefully without disturbing the wildlife, as it were.
Back to top