Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Absurdity of the Battle Over School Lunches

The battle over school lunches, or more precisely, what goes into a school lunch, has veered into the absurd with two separate stories today.

One report indicates that a school has banned brown bag lunches because parents aren't providing kids with the kinds of nutritious meals that the health experts believe should be included.
One Chicago school has banned lunches brought from home, the Chicago Tribune reports. Administrators at Little Village Academy, a public school, say the policy is all in the name of good health. Principal Elsa Carmona told the Tribune she created the policy after watching students bring "bottles of soda and flaming hot chips" for their lunch.

"It's about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom). It's milk versus a Coke,” Carmona said.

Some kids and parents at the school beg to differ about the food quality, saying it doesn't taste good, and the Tribune reported that dozens of kids threw food in the garbage, uneaten. We don't know what's on the menu at Little Village, but these photos of "an enchilada dish" are less than appealing. And really, when is the last time you sampled delicious fare in a school cafeteria? (I am forever haunted by the glue-like yellowish thing my elementary school called lemon pudding.)

Recipes aside, the policy leaves a bad taste in the mouth for plenty of other reasons.

Unless a student has a medical excuse to bring food from home, the only option other than eating cafeteria food is to eat nothing. (Think those kids will ace a quiz on an empty stomach?) And does something like glucose intolerance merit a medical excuse? What about vegetarianism?

Cost is another matter. What if parents don't want to spend money on school lunch because they can send less expensive food from home?
When you actually review what meals are provided by these schools, you see lots of mystery meat and milk (or chocolate milk, which I'll discuss in a moment).

I always brown bagged meals throughout public school and refused to eat whatever was being served in the schools in part because it looked so incredibly distasteful. Then, there's the religious exemptions - will these meals be halal or kosher? I doubt it, particularly when you're mixing meat and milk products at the same meal (or included in the same dishes if you're kosher).

Then, there's the ongoing battle over whether chocolate milk deserves a place in school lunches (and see here and here).
At the center of these battles are complex public health calculations: Is it better to remove sugary chocolate flavorings at the risk that many students will skip milk altogether, missing out on crucial calcium and Vitamin D? Or should schools instead make tweaks — less fat, different sweeteners, fewer calories — that might salvage the benefits while minimizing the downside?

However schools answer these questions, protest inevitably follows. When Fairfax County and D.C. schools banned chocolate milk last year from elementary lunch lines, officials heard not just from parents and students. They also received letters and petitions from a slew of nutritionists and influential special interest groups.

Most accused the districts of acting rashly, robbing students of a tasty drink and the vitamins and minerals that fuel bone and muscle growth.

“We got 10 to 20 e-mails a day,” said Penny McConnell, director of food and nutrition services for Fairfax. “It was a lot of pressure.”

This month — and partly because of that pressure — Fairfax officials announced that they would reintroduce chocolate milk in school cafeterias. The newer, low-fat version includes sucrose, which is made from sugar cane or beets, instead of high-fructose corn syrup, which some critics say is more heavily processed and, as a result, less healthy.

Such reformulations have satisfied some of chocolate milk’s critics. But most scientists and nutritionists, including those employed by local school districts, say that changing sweeteners makes little dietary difference if the total calorie content stays the same.
With nanny staters looking to ban soda all over the place, the next step has been to push for banning products that contain more sugar, as these nanny staters believe that anything that provides more calories than they like should not be provided.

Instead of battling over whether parents have a right to determine what their kids eat in brown bag lunches or whether chocolate milk should or shouldn't be provided as part of the lunches, the focus should be on portion control, exercise and moderation. That's the best way to reduce the obesity epidemic in the nation - and that also goes to how so many parents just don't recognize that their kids are overweight according to BMI or other statistical measures). Pointing out that your kid isn't any bigger than other kids in his or her class doesn't cut it particularly when so many kids are now obese and will likely suffer the effects of being physically inactive the rest of their lives.

No comments: