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School Lunches, Part 2: The Other School Foods
In my “School Lunches – Part 1” article, I wrote about the National School Lunch Program. This is Part 2 of that article, and it’s about the “other” foods your school is making available to students—the cookies, chips, ice cream and maybe even soda pop.

The National School Lunch Program returns only a fraction of the cost of each lunch back to your school system and cannot be sold at a profit, so additional dollars must be contributed by your school district to make up the costs. In the 1990s, many schools began contracting with food manufacturers to sell additional snack items, allowing for a part of the selling price to be returned to the school to help offset the costs of the overall lunch program. As you probably know, this began with soda pop machines, mostly in high schools, and has filtered down to elementary schools with cookies, chips, ice cream and other goodies for your child to buy. This is a good solution to helping with expenses, but what is it doing to your child’s diet? Unfortunately, many children will buy the cookies and/or ice cream and then eat those instead of all or part of the lunch you so lovingly prepared that morning.

My 17-year-old son recently confessed to me that he usually tossed his sandwich and fruit in elementary and middle school, or actually sold it, preferring to eat ice cream; he also informed me that this is common practice in the lunch room. Recovering from my shock, I started to think of the many hundreds of dollars spent on lean lunch meats, whole grain breads and perfect fruit that I had so carefully packed for him, truly wondering why any child would give up such a good lunch for junk food. His answer was simple: when your friends are eating the cookies, candy bars and little snack packs their mothers packed for them, why would he want to eat something as boring as a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread? As a high school senior with a nutritionist mother and a desire to stay trim, he now understands the error of his ways but it made me realize two things: children don’t know the basics of good nutrition, and schools make it too easy to shortcut healthy eating. However, let me make it clear that I don’t dislike ice cream in moderation, and I do understand the need for schools to get money any way they can, but this solution has had a lasting negative effect on our children’s health in terms of obesity, diabetes and other health problems.

What can you do, as a parent, to avoid the problems of poor lunch practices by your child? The following suggestions may help your little student to make better choices:
  • Have a talk with your child(ren) about basic nutrition principles. Teach them that after a full morning of classes, their bodies need all of the nutrients found in a hot lunch (or your healthy packed lunch), not only to grow but also to learn for the rest of the day. A high sugar lunch will make them tired in the afternoon and feel like they are starving when they get home from school. They will perform better in class and feel better as well. This education should start at home at the dinner table, as early as 3 years old, when they are displaying fussy eating habits.
  • Understand peer pressure when they start school. It is true that when an apple and cookies are placed together at the lunch table, the cookies will always win! Knowing this, occasionally feel free to send cookies with your child but you pick them—look for whole grains, fruit based and no more than two cookies as a serving. Hopefully, this will eliminate the desire to buy those little packages of four sugar-laden, cream filled sandwich cookies that the cafeteria is selling. Also, set a limit on how often you will give your child money for “extras.”
  • Involve your child in setting the menu for his school lunches. He is more likely to eat what he has chosen rather that what you think he will eat. You will actually have many opportunities to teach him good nutrition during this process as you both decide what is a healthy lunch. Be aware that occasionally he will request something that may not be at the top of the healthy practices food chain but this is ok every so often, as it will keep him from losing interest in this process. When he does pick something you feel is not appropriate, ask him why he feels this is a good food choice and if the answer is reasonable, allow it. It could be that his friend Jimmy always brings little doughnuts and he just wants to feel part of the group. These very rare instances can have a big impact on the overall lunchtime experience and your child won’t feel deprived. However, make sure he understands that those little doughnuts won’t make him feel as good as a piece of his favorite fruit later in the day. Children do understand logic!
  • Know what your cafeteria is offering. It is your right as a parent to visit the school lunchroom, and if you are alarmed at the variety of “junk,” find some other parents who feel the same way and take your concerns to the school principal. I know one elementary principal who, while she cannot eliminate these items from her school, strictly limits the amount of items any child is buying. Schools listen to parents, not to nutrition professionals. Consider taking the issue to your PTA if you find your voice needs to be louder—parents involved in PTA organizations are usually very concerned for the well-being of their children.

Nothing will change until parents take action, and while you need to keep the financial burden of the schools in mind, parents can control what items are allowed for sale in their schools. Given the national concerns about the poor health of our children, most school systems have taken steps to restrict availability of manufactured foods to certain times of the day, but this is mostly in the middle and high schools. Remember, school lunch should provide almost 1/3 of your child’s daily food intake. Make sure that amount is high quality. Article written March 2010
Susan M. Leisner RD, IBCLC, RLC Nutritionist & Lactation Consultant