Parents Perspective

The Fight for a Healthier School Lunch

We all want our children to eat better school lunches, but are struggling to figure out how to make it happen. Will proposed new rules help?

Young Boy With Healthy School Lunch Shutterstock.com
I vividly remember the year my middle school revamped our lunch options. One year, it was all sodas, fudgy brownies, and addictive chimichangas. The next, it was bottles of water, low-fat cookies, and a lump of whole-wheat tortilla we were told was a burrito. At 13, this change seemed devastating, but now, 10 years later, I can appreciate what my school district was trying to do—and what our government continues to try to do nationwide.

A bipartisan Senate agreement was released on Tuesday, which revises the healthier meal standards that have been phased in since 2012. These standards set fat, calorie, sugar, and sodium limits on lunch line meals. Any school that accepts federal reimbursements for free and reduced-price meals for low-income students has long been required to follow these rulings.

The proposed revisions would ease the rules on whole grains—requiring that only 80 percent of grains on the lunch line be whole grains, rather than 100 percent—and delay the upcoming deadline to cut sodium levels in school lunches. Rather than enacting the new sodium requirements in 2017, they will be delayed another two years while a study measures the benefits of that reduction.

The revision would also require the government to come up with solutions to reduce the waste of fruits and vegetables, which has increased since children are required to take one on the lunch line—though many students toss the unwanted food.

While the former rules were put in place with good intention, apparently many schools were finding them harder to institute, claiming that whole-grain pasta is harder to cook and that children don't like is as much. Southern schools have had problems finding tasty whole-grain biscuits and grits, while Southwestern schools say their students don't like whole-grain tortillas.

It seems to me that the struggle comes down to this—finding healthy foods that kids actually want to eat. We can require them to pick up a piece of fruit at the lunch line, but we can't force them to eat it. And finding a solution to that problem is more difficult that revising restrictive food standards.

Riyana Straetker is an editorial assistant at Parents who now happily eats her fruits and vegetables. You can follow her on Twitter.