Deep-fried popcorn chicken, tiny taters, bread, barbecue sauce, ketchup, milk. That high-fat, high-sodium, low-fiber menu is a typical lunch at a typical American elementary school. We know about it because Mrs. Q., a grade-school teacher, decided to eat her school's lunch every day for an entire school year and report anonymously to the world on her blog, "Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project" (fedupwithschoollunch.blogspot.com). What she discovered about our kids' midday meals is sobering if not surprising: Menu mainstays routinely feature fatty items such as pizza, french fries, hot dogs, and a mystery pork product called "ribicue." She's eaten beef with fake grill marks and lots of sweetened fruit cups.
Mrs. Q. didn't know when she started documenting each meal that she would become a prominent voice on a hot-button issue that has galvanized not only high-profile chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Rachael Ray but also First Lady Michelle Obama. "I'm normally not subversive in any way," Mrs. Q. says of her unexpected though anonymous celebrity status -- we promised not to reveal her identity when we interviewed her. "But if you're a parent you may not have a clue about what your kids are really eating. Lunches at my school are like overly packaged TV dinners gone bad."
It doesn't have to be this way. At Galtier Magnet Elementary School, in St. Paul, Minnesota, menus include whole-grain bread and pasta, along with unsweetened applesauce for dessert. There's also a salad bar stocked with greens, carrots, peas, and grape tomatoes. A sauce station offers seasonings -- low-fat ranch dressing, soy sauce, Louisiana hot sauce. Many of the kids in St. Paul still eat tacos and macaroni and cheese, but the cafeteria makes lower-fat versions of both. They also get edamame and chicken stew, which add vital nutrients into their diet.
While even detractors acknowledge that the quality of most American school lunches has steadily improved over the past 15 years, everyone from nutritionists and public-health experts to the First Lady -- not to mention a growing number of extremely frustrated parents -- believes that our children's school lunches are still overprocessed affairs laden with unhealthy preservatives, sodium, sugar, and trans fat. Nutritional quality varies widely from district to district, but according to the USDA a typical school lunch far exceeds the recommended 500 milligrams of sodium; some districts, in fact, serve lunches with more than 1,000 milligrams. The USDA also reports that less than a third of schools stay below the recommended standard for fat content in their meals. "School lunches hardly resemble real food -- they serve items such as chicken nuggets, which are highly processed, with additives and preservatives, and list more than 30 ingredients instead of just chicken," says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., professor of nutrition food studies and public health at New York University. Nuggets are only one example of how schools rely on too many foods that are heavily processed and high in sugar, sodium, and chemicals. The problem isn't simply that kids are eating unhealthy foods for lunch. The cafeteria's offerings also give a seal of approval: "Kids associate school with education; therefore they get the wrong impression that these kinds of foods are healthy," says Dr. Nestle.
And we're not just talking about the stuff on the hot-lunch menu. Provided through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts (and also offered to students who can pay full price), it meets the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. While NSLP meals -- eaten by more than 31 million children, over half of all American students -- need to be improved, the worst food lurks in what's called à la carte service. That's where any kid can buy anything from cake to pizza or brand-name junk food. These heavily marketed choices are essentially unregulated. (Hard candy and gum are not allowed to be sold but chocolate bars are, for example.) "We offer many choices in the school library but no pornography," says Janet Poppendieck, Ph.D., author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America. "We should offer an array of meals in school, but nothing unhealthy."