In a 1990s episode of Saturday Night Live, Chris Farley donned a grotesque apron-and-hairnet getup and pranced around on stage—in the way that only Chris Farley could—while Adam Sandler sang what would become a crowd favorite: "Lunchlady Land." "Served some reheated Salisbury steak, with a little slice of love. Got no clue what the chicken pot pie is made of," went the tune. The absurdity of the sketch drove home the point: school lunch is gross.
This fall, that stereotype may get squashed. For the first time in 15 years, school lunches must meet new federal nutrition standards that limit calories and sodium and mandate more servings of fruit and vegetables. Why now? Childhood obesity levels have reached epic proportions. One-third of American children are overweight or obese, putting them at risk for diseases usually reserved for adulthood, such as type 2 diabetes. Schools, meanwhile, feed a lot of kids. Some 32 million partake in the National School Lunch Program, a subsidized service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Consider that kids get up to half of their calories in school, and many kids look to school for the bulk of their food supply. One in every five American kids struggles with hunger, according to Share Our Strength, a nonprofit focused on ending child hunger. Poor nutrition can not only lead to obesity—through sporadic intake of processed foods—it also begets poor school performance and behavior. What's more, at least one-quarter of 17- to 24-year-olds are too fat to enlist in the military, says the U.S. Department of Defense.
So call the new nutrition standards what they are: a massive intervention. Legislating healthier school meals represents the capstone of a burgeoning movement taking place in communities across the country and by its leadership. With her "Let's Move!" initiative, launched in February, 2010, Michelle Obama has put childhood obesity on the national agenda, enlisting schools, places of worships, and healthcare professionals, for example, in the campaign to get kids to eat well and exercise.
More than 4,000 schools have gotten a jumpstart on the new guidelines, earning recognition from the USDA's HealthierUS SchoolChallenge, which rewards schools for advancing nutrition and physical activity through Let's Move!. "Let's Move is a flowering of a movement that had begun at least a decade before," says Zenobia Barlow, executive director of Ecoliteracy, a Berkeley, Calif.-based group that helps schools educate kids about nutrition and improve their quality of food.
Several years ago, Ecoliteracy partnered with the Chez Panisse Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the well-known, eco-friendly restaurant of the same name, and the Berkeley Unified School District to provide schools with healthier food and, in some cases, cooking and gardening classes. A study that followed 238 kids from that district as they graduated from fourth and fifth grades onto middle school found that the more extensive the curricula, the better the students' attitudes and behaviors around eating healthfully.
This is just one example of the many experiments and surveys taking place throughout American school districts, all of which have lessons to share in the effort to revamp school nutrition.
In California's El Monte School District, which has won 14 silver awards from the HealthierUS School Challenge, nutrition is practically play. Kids Cooking Camp, Veggie Fear Factor, and Healthy Grocery Store Scavenger Hunt are among the activities that educate kids in nutrition. "I have learned to always involve the students in the decision-making process," says Robert Lewis, the district's nutrition director. Lewis offers students taste-tests before rolling out new foods and he takes students to commercial food shows to sample from vendors he's approved. "Students are our loyal customers and should be treated as such," especially when working to fulfill the new requirements, he says. "Start with the students and you can't go wrong."