Hungry Vs. Healthy: The School Lunch Controversy

There’s a new plate in town and it’s being served with side of complaints.

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Last week, I was invited to be a guest on ABC's 20/20 to comment on a YouTube video depicting high schoolers expressing their dissatisfaction with the newest school lunch regulations. While it captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of viewers, the fact remains that although some students complain of going "hungry," boxes of food get tossed every day from school cafeterias across the country. Is it really that these kids are hungry or are they not used to foods that are healthy?

Bonnie Taub-Dix
Bonnie Taub-Dix

The background: The new regulations released in August, which were championed by First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her "Let's Move" campaign to fight childhood obesity, trimmed down the carbs and gave them a little color by emphasizing whole grains instead of white flour. Fruits and veggies were placed in a leading role supported by a cast of protein foods like chicken, lean meat, cheese, and so on. The calories of school lunch meals have not changed appreciably, with previous guidelines for children in grades 7 through 12 weighing in at 825 calories and the newest regs ranging from 750 to 850 calories for the same age group. What has changed significantly, however, is what's being served.

As hard as it might be to believe, one in three American children is overweight or obese and at risk for diabetes, meaning that so many children are overfed, yet undernourished. Previous school meal standards were developed 15 years ago and didn't meet nutritional guidelines recently established by independent health and nutrition experts. Under the watch of the Institute of Medicine and passed in December, 2010, by a bi-partisan majority in Congress, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, was enacted to provide nutritious meals to all children across America.

The Gripe: Not everyone is happy about these healthy school-lunch makeovers, as evidenced by the YouTube video. Some hungry students and teachers are claiming that they aren't being served the calories they need—and that to compensate, they're resorting to junk food to fill up. (Ironically, that's a recipe for hunger: Unlike nutritious food, junk is only temporarily satisfying.) Adding more calories doesn't mean adding more nutritional value. For some, overeating could lead to feeling listless and weak.

There are, however, kids who need more food than is being served, particularly those who participate in sports and after-school programs. For these kids, schools can structure after-school snack and supper programs. Individual students and/or sports teams can also supplement with healthy snacks brought from home. Schools also have the option to give students who need additional calories seconds of low-fat milk, fruit, and vegetables, but those are not the foods kids are requesting. Instead, they are seeking the preferred choices served in the past, which may have less to do with calories than familiarity.

The Problem: When you really weigh the difference between the calories of the old school lunch tray and the new, the bigger problem may be about giving kids the food they like, even though some of those foods, especially those that are fried and laden with unhealthy ingredients, may not like them back. Herein lies the disconnect: Our children need help in getting to a healthier place, and although science has paved the way, that doesn't mean it's easy to make sense of the science—especially when it comes to serving kids the foods they not only need, but they actually like.

And perhaps the problem goes way beyond school walls. Although the cafeteria can be a classroom through the introduction of healthier options, parents need to step up to the plate at home, too. The most important part a parent can play is that of role model. Setting up a salad bar at home and adding veggies to pizza are just some of the ways parents can bring home a healthier message.

The compromise: School lunch provides approximately one-third of the calories an average child needs for the day, but children who are active and fast-growing may require more than others. Although kids should have an adequate number of calories to support health and growth, it's important to focus on the right types of calories, not just the number of calories required. In other words, we need to look at quality and quantity. It's also unrealistic and perhaps unhealthy for kids to attempt to meet the demands of their school day, both physically and intellectually, all in one meal. Eating a balanced breakfast and including energizing snacks is key in maintaining energy levels.

Parents may need to send the right snacks with their children instead of sugary treats, which could zap their energy instead of providing it. The best snacks are composed of a combo of carbohydrate (preferably whole-grain varieties) and protein and/or fat, like cheese and whole-grain crackers, or almond butter and whole-grain bread. Even some of the energy bars on the market plus a beverage could be a great snack, but here, you have to read labels carefully to be sure that you're getting a product that's well-balanced and not full of sugar.

This is a perfect time for the government, schools, parents, and communities to join together to help healthy and tasty coexist on a child's plate. For more information on how you can help make this happen, visit www.letsmove.gov to see how family, food, and fitness come together to us raise happier and healthier children.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.