Put the Mushy Peas Down: Why Attempts to Make School Lunch Healthier Failed

Liz Murray (PO ’21)

Cafeteria food has become as much a part of the American public-school experience as recess and standardized testing. The National School Lunch Program, while perhaps only famous among children for chicken nuggets and mystery meat, has been serving meals to countless elementary, middle, and high school students since 1946. In fact, the FDA reports that during the 2015-2016 school year alone, more than 98,000 schools provided lunches through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) (“Nutrition Standards”, 2017). The NSLP receives the most praise not for the culinary masterpieces they bring to elementary schoolers, but for feeding low-income students – on any given day, 21.6 million low-income children receive a free or reduced-price meal through the program (“Nutrition Standards”, 2017). For some students, school lunch is their main source of food, and might be the only full meal they have each day. The NSLP, in this way, does the massively important job of making sure low-income children get fed at least once a day.

But the NSLP is not without its flaws. In recent years, the program has come under fire for the nutritional value of its foods. Indeed, lunches served through the NSLP often consist of foods like chicken nuggets, fries, pizza, sugary chocolate milk, and burgers – not exactly what we picture as healthy choices. Researchers tend to agree – studies have found that students get a whopping half of their daily calories from school lunch alone (“How to Improve”, n.d.). Researchers have also found that school lunches are laden with “empty calories”, or foods that have high calorie counts but are low in key nutrients like calcium, protein, fiber, and vitamins (Wilson, Briefel, & Gleason, 2009). What nutrition information is available about school lunches confirms these findings – nutrition facts tend to show that the lunches are full of sodium and saturated fats and lack much nutritional value (Wilson, Briefel, & Gleason, 2009). In a nation that is increasingly conscious of nutrition and struggling with an obesity epidemic, the NSLP has been accused of being a part of the problem instead of the solution.

In response to these problems, the NSLP launched a campaign in 2012 to revamp their lunch system. With the support of then-First-Lady Michelle Obama, the NSLP worked to improve the nutritional value of its lunches. The program typically did this in one of two ways: they either altered the recipes and content of the existing meals or simply added a fruit or vegetable side dish without changing the original meal. The latter, perhaps because it is cheaper and easier, was the more common of the two. While both these changes may sound productive in theory, in practice they made very little difference and might have even made the situation worse.

To begin with the more common strategy, the NSLP often “improved” the nutritional content of school meals by adding a vegetable or fruit side dish. This meant cafeterias still served the same meal of chicken nuggets and fries as before, but also put an apple or a serving of carrots on the tray. This strategy is problematic in a number of ways. For one, it doesn’t solve the problem of the entrees being laden with saturated fats, empty carbohydrates, and sodium – students still consume all the same foods without receiving much nutritional value in return. But at least they’re getting some nutrients from that fruit or veggie side dish, right?

Well, the research suggests otherwise. A case study conducted at elementary schools in the Northeast found that students are no more likely to eat a fruit or vegetable side dish simply because they are forced to take one (Chu 2015). Instead, students eat the chicken nuggets, fries, or pizza, then throw the carrots or peas out. This not only does nothing to solve the problem of poor lunch nutrition, but it creates the problem of increased food waste. Many school cafeterias struggle to stay afloat as is – when districts are struggling to feed students in the first place, the NSLP allocating funding to mushy greens destined to be thrown out is counterintuitive.

The NSLP’s other solution to the nutrition problem was to alter the recipes themselves. The program replaced ingredients in some of their worst meals (nutrition-wise) with “healthier” alternatives to try to bring calorie, sodium, and fat levels down. While they succeeded in changing the nutrition facts, the new foods were deemed unappealing by students (Neumark-Sztainer, French, Hannan, Story, & Fulkerson, 2005). At first, this seems like a trivial externality – so what if the kids don’t like it, it’s food isn’t it? But this creates a secondary problem – unappealing food encourages kids to eat off-campus or purchase snacks from vending machines. A study conducted across 20 high schools confirmed this fact; after changes to the school menu were made to make foods “healthier”, students purchased snacks in greater quantities and ate lunch at cheap fast-food restaurants with greater frequency. Of course, low-income students cannot afford to do this, but this is still an important negative externality to consider. If a significant number of students have this reaction to changing menus, pushing students toward fast-food chains and vending machine snacks may be making the nutrition problem worse.

The National School Lunch Program made a valiant effort with its 2012 campaign to fix the nutrition of its foods. But it is important to recognize the problem is far from solved – simply putting an extra serving of vegetables on kids’ plates doesn’t change much, and altering the existing recipes is tricky business when kids have unhealthy alternatives around every corner. The NSLP did make an attempt to address this important issue, but it also must recognize that real solutions are yet to come.

Works Cited

Chu, A. E. (2015, August 26). Why the healthy school lunch program is in trouble. Before/after photos of what students ate. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2015/08/26/schoolchildren- are-tossing-an-average-of-more-than-a-third-cup-of-fruits-and-veggies-in-the-trash-each- lunch/?utm_term=.406b84fae424

How to Improve American School Lunches. (n.d.). Retrieved November 18, 2017, from Scientific American website: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-improve-american-school-lunches/

Neumark-Sztainer, D., French, S. A., Hannan, P. J., Story, M., & Fulkerson, J. A. (2005). School lunch and snacking patterns among high school students: Associations with school food environment and policies. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 2(14). https://doi.org/10.1186/1479-5868-2-14

Nutrition Standards for School Meals. (2017, November 7). Retrieved November 17, 2017, from United States Department of Agriculture: Food and Nutrition Service website: https://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/nutrition-standards-school-meals

Wilson, A., Briefel, R. R., & Gleason, P. M. (2009). Consumption of low-nutrient, energy-dense foods and beverages at school, home, and other locations among school lunch participants and nonparticipants. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(2). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.10.064

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