No School Lunch Left Behind

The USDA relaxes restrictions on meat and grain portions, but waste—not hunger—may be the real problem.

Are students not getting enough to eat at school? Or is waste the culprit? (Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Dec 12, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010—which, among other reforms, added more vegetables and fruit to school meals and set limits on the amount of meats and grains—took effect across America in July. Before long, a common complaint appeared to simultaneously rise up in communities nationwide regarding the new menu: The kids aren’t getting enough to eat. It came from school boards, parents, coaches, and yes, students. In Kansas, a student-made video turned the lyrics to Fun.’s “We Are Young” into “We Are Hungry,” and promptly went viral.

Last week, the Department of Agriculture responded to the claims of student hunger by modifying the terms of the new law. In a letter sent to members of Congress on Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote that the Department will do away with both daily and weekly serving maximums for meats and grains.

This may appear to be a case of the USDA caving to complaints of “government overreach” from conservative lawmakers. But in the letter, Vilsack implied that the modification is a short-term change that will “allow more time for the development of products that fit within the new standards while granting schools additional weekly menu planning options to help ensure that children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week.”

According to some observers, it’s not that students aren’t getting enough to eat—many students may be throwing a significant amount of food away. Boston-based Project Bread—an organization focused on addressing hunger in Massachusetts—has monitored plate-waste in school districts across the state for several years. This year, amid the reformed lunch program, the organization began surveying students about whether they were still hungry at the end of lunch.

“While the data are still being analyzed, anecdotally I have seen that a large percentage of children who indicate that they are still hungry also leave uneaten food on their plates,” says Scott Richardson, director of strategic initiatives at Project Bread. “Additionally, I can also attest that there does not appear to be a substantial change in plate waste due to the new regulations.”

Translation: The students who say they’re hungry after lunch may be the ones throwing away perfectly good food—a phenomenon that began long before the enactment of school-lunch reform.

Richardson says his organization generally agrees with temporarily easing the meat and grain limits to give food-service officials more flexibility in meeting the USDA guidelines. “Given the daily maximum calorie restrictions and minimum fruit, vegetable, milk, grain, and meat/meat alternative requirements, all of which remain in place, we believe the change to daily meat and grain amounts on the school plate will be minimal,” Richardson says.

But in the long-term, many believe the key to devising healthier meals that students will actually finish comes down to putting more effort into the preparation. Poor “presentation and palatability” of cafeteria food, as well as the short time allotted for lunch in most schools, account for most food waste and hunger among students, Richardson says. Project Bread’s Chefs in Schools initiative—in which a chef prepares delicious, healthy meals for students and trains food-service staff to do the same—has proven that kids can get enough veggies and enough to fill them up too, Richardson says.

Harvard’s School of Public Health studied the program, and earlier this year released a report saying it has been successful in getting kids to eat healthier at school. The study showed that students in two Boston schools enrolled in Chefs in Schools ate more than three times as many vegetables and 50 percent more whole grains than students in control schools. Students also drank similar amounts of milk when only 1% and skim milk was available. Food waste was significantly reduced, and student participation in the school lunch program increased by 17 percent, Richardson says.

He adds that in addition to expanding the Chefs in Schools program, Project Bread will publish a cookbook next spring to help schools meet the new USDA guidelines on a budget—with meals kids will eat.

How do you think the school lunch program could be improved?

Related articles on TakePart:

5 Innovative Farm-to-School Food Programs

Jane Says: It’s Time to Have Some Fun With School Lunches

A Surprising Dip in Childhood Obesity Rates