EDITOR'S SUMMARY: The food in your child’s retro or TV-inspired lunchbox may be healthier than what their school is serving. This is especially true if your kid is toting whole, unprocessed foods with nutritious “macros”—fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. The school’s list of ingredients in their variety of meals may be nasty indeed; empty calories filled with chemicals, additives, seed oils, and processed sugars. Let’s take a peek to see what’s on today’s menu…
Written by Robyn Chittister
Edited by Nicki Steinberger, Ph.D.
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) feeds approximately 30 million kids every day, providing free or low-cost lunches at over 100,000 public and private schools. These schools receive $1.30 to feed each student. That amount must cover not only the food, but the labor, equipment, and overhead costs.
The NSLP was created in 1946 with two goals in mind: Feeding poor children and providing a market for U.S. agricultural surpluses.
Coming out of the Great Depression, the program focused on making sure children had enough to eat. Now, one in three children ages 2–19 is overweight or obese. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration drastically cut the NSLP. Between 1980 and 2008, obesity among children tripled.
Making healthier foods accessible is today’s primary problem, as well as getting kids to eat nutritious foods with fewer processed, sugary, and industrial seed oil-filled ingredients.
To this day, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the NSLP. Promoting agriculture and supporting children’s health may not be compatible, as the foods the industry creates in excess aren’t the most nutritious foods for children to eat.
Breaking Down the Quality of Ingredients
In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). The HHFKA began taking effect in 2012. All lunches served through the NSLP must meet federal regulations. The USDA provides detailed instructions of what foods in what quantities may be served. As of the date of this publication, the NSLP meal components include the following:
- 2½–5 cups of fruit per week
- 3¾ –5 cups of vegetables per week, broken into categories such as “dark green,” “red/orange,” and so on
- 8–12 cups of grains per week
- 5 cups of fluid milk
Each meal must meet the following specifications:
- 550–850 calories, minimum
- Less than 10 grams of saturated fat
- 1230–1420 mg of sodium
- 0 trans fats
Other ingredients, such as solid fats and added sugars, can be included in meals, as long as the sodium and fat limits aren’t exceeded. The standards don’t differentiate between types of fats—all fats are considered “bad,” including saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which can be healthy with the appropriate balance of omega-3 fatty acids, and quality of fats consumed.
Up to half of the required fruits or vegetables can be provided in juice or smoothie form. Juice must be served at 100% strength. A serving of fruit may include the juice or syrup in which the fruit was canned. All fluid milk must be 1% fat or less, which unfortunately amounts to decreased fat and increased sugar.
However, milk can be flavored, though unflavored milk must be offered. At least 80% of the grain-based foods offered must consist of 51% or more whole grains. Sodium levels were supposed to be decreased to 935–1080 mg by 2019. However, these targets have been delayed.
Schools are encouraged, but not required, to serve a variety of lean-protein foods, limit servings of processed meats, and serve only natural, low- or reduced-fat cheeses. It is also recommended, though not required, that canned fruit be packed in 100% fruit juice or water.
The Red Tape Is Tightly Wound
Lobbyists and food industry special interests have a great deal of influence on NSLP requirements. In 2011, when the USDA tried to reduce the amount of white potatoes served, potato farmers lobbied against it—and they won. Similarly, cranberry growers fought the removal of dry, sweetened cranberries. Consequently, there is an exemption to the rules for dried fruit with added sugar for “processing and/or palatability purposes.”
Politics also come into play, with some politicians insisting that Americans have to spend as little money as possible on school lunches, and meet only the bare minimum nutritional requirements.
Individual schools or school districts ultimately decide which specific foods are served. They can select from a list of foods that the USDA purchases, which includes agricultural surplus foods. Schools cannot specify preferred brands or producers, nor can they specify particular regions in which the foods originate, which decreases the accessibility of locally-grown foods.
The USDA buys hundreds of millions of dollars worth of agricultural products to distribute to schools. In 2015, 64% of NSLP spending went to meat, dairy, and egg products—almost all of which came from factory farms, which is a major health concern.
Most schools aren’t handling their own food purchases. Instead, they use food management companies like Aramark, Compass Group, and Sodexo. Most meals are not made from scratch, nor do they use fresh fruits or vegetables. Foods are frozen and heated before serving.
Toxic Levels of Heavy Metals
In addition to pesticides, glyphosate, and hormones, the school cafeteria is serving up heavy metals, derived from petrochemicals, including said glyphosate. Moms Across America, a national coalition of moms, whose mission is to empower, educate, and create healthy communities, facilitated thorough testing of school lunches in 18 cities and 15 states. The primary testing was conducted by Health Research Institute Laboratories in Fairfield, Iowa.
Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury were found at higher levels than is allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in drinking water. Not an exhaustive list by any means; health conditions that may occur as a result of these toxic heavy metals include high blood pressure, kidney damage, delays in physical or mental development, skin damage, weakened circulation, and cancer.
Moms Across America expressed:
“Testing school lunches for glyphosate, pesticides, heavy metals, hormones, and nutrients is something our federal government agencies should be doing. These test results should be made publicly available. Moms Across America is clear that the federal government is primarily in the pockets of Big Ag and Big Chem, so these actions are unlikely ever to be taken.”
Milk’s Absence of Fat; Meat Gone Wrong
School lunches must include low-fat or fat-free milk (perpetuating the fat/cholesterol myth), including flavored milk. Milk in school lunches has been subsidized for over 80 years. However, according to the National Institutes of Health, lactose intolerance affects about 95% of Asians, 60-80% of Black Americans and Ashkenazi Jews, 80-100% of Native Americans, and 50-80% of Latinos. Up to 4.9% of children may be allergic to cow’s milk.
But schools aren’t required to offer lactose-free milk or milk alternatives. If kids want to drink something other than milk, they need to provide a written request from a doctor or parent. Raw milk has known health benefits, such as beneficial bacteria and whole food enzymes; unfortunately it isn’t being offered at school.
Whole milk is not allowed, but fat-free chocolate milk is. Banning whole milk was supposed to help reduce obesity. Instead, the fat in milk was replaced by the sugar in chocolate milk. While the American Heart Association recommends that children consume less than 25 grams of sugar per day, the chocolate milk served at many schools contains 25 grams of sugar itself.
That sugar comes in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is associated with insulin resistance, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. Studies have shown that HFCS increases a person’s appetite more than cane sugar. Why not ban chocolate milk? It was banned for a time, but schools lobbied to bring it back, as too many kids were just throwing the plain milk away.
On average, children eat 22 grams of processed meat each day. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls processed meats “carcinogenic to humans.” Processed meats include bacon, deli meat slices, sausage, hot dogs, pepperoni, and salami, as well as meat, poultry, and seafood products preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or adding chemical preservatives.
To be specific… It's the processed meats that are cured, and contain nitrites, and/or antibiotics that are associated with increased cancer risk, particularly colorectal cancer.
From a recent study at Queen’s University Belfast on the distinction between processed meats’ “processing”:
“A leading scientist has urged ministers to ban the use of nitrites in food after research highlighted the “clear” risk of developing cancer from eating processed meat such as bacon and ham too often.
The study by scientists from Queen’s University Belfast found that mice fed a diet of processed meat containing the chemicals, which are used to cure bacon and give it its distinctive pink colour, developed 75% more cancerous tumours in the duodenum than mice fed nitrite-free pork.”
Schools are required to provide a minimum number of calories, but there is no upper limit on calories. Many schools employ an “offer vs. serve” approach, in which foods are offered, but kids decide what they’ll actually take. Consequently, many kids take and eat the entire meal, with the addition of processed food snacks, consuming more calories than they need.
The BIG Problem With Processed Foods
Although regulations state that schools are supposed to serve fresh fruits and vegetables, schools can apply for hardship exemptions, allowing them to serve frozen, dried, and canned fruits and vegetables.
Kristy Anderson, a government relations manager for the American Heart Association explains:
“There are no nutrition standards for frozen, dried and canned products. Canned fruit is often canned in sugar juices and there are no sugar standards.”
Many of the foods served are processed or use artificial flavors and colors, preservatives, and other additives. Meat and produce are typically conventionally raised and produced, but they’re not the only problem.
The more processed a food, the fewer vitamins and nutrients, and the more salt, sugar, oxidized industrial seed oils, preservatives, and other chemicals it contains. A 2018 study showed that consuming processed foods correlated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease, heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease.
Many artificial colors, aka “food dyes,” are banned in Europe due to their correlation with behavioral disorders in children, particularly inattention and hyperactivity. Other preservatives and chemicals are banned in other countries, but allowed in the United States, even though they cause cancer in rats, interfere with hormone function, and are associated with dangerous side effects.
Potato chips, french fries, jams, and ketchup are not counted as fruits or vegetables, but tomato purees count as vegetables. Tomato products are credited based on the volume of the tomatoes before processing. Two tablespoons of pizza sauce counts as an entire serving of vegetables.
When the USDA tried to close that loophole, food companies such as Conagra and Shwan’s successfully lobbied against it. Thus, a slice of pizza now counts as a serving of vegetables.
Domino’s has created the Smart Slice pizza that complies with the NSLP requirements. It includes whole grain dough (inflammatory, addicting, high-glycemic), light cheese, and lower-fat pepperoni.
You may also see students with “Walking Tacos”—Doritos with chili and cheese on top. Fast food restaurants and other food companies try to find loopholes in the NSLP requirements.
Outdated over-focus on low-fat: A federal study showed that children have the opportunity to choose low-fat meals in about 90% of schools. However, only in 20% of the schools did the average lunch the children selected meet the NSLP regulations for fat. Eight out of ten schools exceed the NSLP requirements for school lunch fat content.
News alert: Fat in general is not the culprit, and many conscious eaters are turning to a healthy-high-fat diet while decreasing unnecessary refined carbohydrates. It’s the type and source of fat that’s important.
Schools can get around the NSLP guidelines by selling à la carte items, such as cake and cheeseburgers. Students can also avail themselves of snacks from vending machines. Some school districts even rely on sales of snacks to supplement income from the NSLP.
Nutrition services directors routinely cite lack of money as the most important problem they face. A USDA study showed that 72% of NSLP lunches cost more to produce than the reimbursement rate.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) did improve the nutrition of school lunches, as demonstrated through a study published in 2020. However, although school lunches are better today than they were in the past, there’s still a long way to go toward ensuring that students have nutritious, sustainable, healthy meals.
You Can Implement a Shift in the Right Direction
We live in a society where a so-called “wholesome” smoothie might resemble a sugar-laden fruit festival, with enough fast-converting-to-sugar carbohydrates to send your daughter or son to the moon and back swiftly. A place where healthy raw ingredients such as chicken (if organic, pasture-raised, and well-sourced) are processed and turned into inflammatory, breaded nuggets.
To truly provide nourishing food, the entire school program needs to be created free of politicians and industry lobbyists. In the meantime, you can take the following steps to support healthier, nutritious food options for your kids and their friends, at their local school:
- Model and lead by example to teach your kids how to make healthy food choices; give them a WHY
- Volunteer at your local school’s garden. If it doesn’t have a garden, start one.
- Take point on involving local farmers and food suppliers in the school lunch program.
- Talk to your school about lengthening lunch time. Kids eat better when they have more time to eat.
- Advocate for nutrient-rich foods, including grass-fed burgers, fresh seafood, and organic fruits and veggies.
- Introducing a salad bar with a variety of protein options would be a welcomed addition.
Published on January 19, 2023
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