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Pro Perspective: Can School Lunches Pack More Than Empty Calories?

Our national school lunch program provides daily meals to over 29 million students, 20 million of which are provided free of cost. Since kids are in school 180 days a year on average, that adds up to a lot of school lunches. This program was a huge safety net during the COVID pandemic, as schools relied on grab-and-go distribution that allowed adults to pick up the meals without the children present and without requiring payment.

Before and after the pandemic, the US school lunch program has done the job of getting calories into kids’ bellies. And as a dietitian and a mother concerned about hunger and malnutrition, I don’t scoff at that.

But as a dietitian and mother, I also believe that food can be medicine or poison and that the quality of food being served in schools across the country is harming our kids’ metabolic health. We can see this in continued increases in childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

We can’t fix problems we don’t understand clearly. In this edition of Pro Perspective, I’m going to outline what’s wrong with school lunches today, and what we can do about it.

Let’s use this picture (taken by our Director of Marketing and professional food photographer, Anne Watson) of a week’s worth of her son’s school lunches.

Photographed by Anne Watson


Five Big Problems With School Lunches


1. Way too much sugar

Healthy food advocates have been successful in banning sodas from school lunches, but high-sugar culprits like chocolate milk and fruit juice remain. Juice especially can have almost as much sugar as an equivalent amount of soda.

Another item that stands out in the pictures above include the dried cranberries, which the USDA considers a day’s serving of fruit, but they have 21 grams of added sugar (not naturally occurring fruit sugar).

Compare this to the kiwi, which has a net 8 grams of carbohydrates, zero added sugar, and provides 85% of the entire day’s intake of Vitamin C. And Scooby Snacks? At 21 grams of refined carbohydrates and 8 grams of added sugar, they’re not even healthy for a dog.

Photographed by Anne Watson
Photographed by Anne Watson


2. Too low in protein

Less than 15% of the calories in a typical school lunch come from protein. The rest of the calories mostly come from refined carbohydrates and fat. Ideally, we want our meals to be at least 20% protein.

As we describe in this One Big Idea article on the protein leverage hypothesis, nearly everyone is getting way too little protein and way too much refined carbohydrates and fat. It’s this out-of-whack ratio that is the main cause of metabolic disease.

3. Low-quality protein

A 2009 investigation by USA Today found that what was served in the School Lunch Program didn’t meet quality or safety standards for Fast Food Restaurants! This has improved, but shelf-stable mini cheeseburgers? We can do better.

4. Too little fresh food

The need for grab-and-go, especially during the pandemic is understandable and is clearly a huge logistical challenge. But fresh, whole real food provides special health-promoting micro-nutrients that packaged and processed food cannot.

Nutrients like polyphenols and other antioxidants support our immune system and help us thrive. We have to do better than the 6 fresh foods out of the 19 items that are shown in the top picture for a week’s worth of food.

5. Misleading nutrition labels

Labeling like the Whole Grain Council on the Scooby Snacks is for marketing purposes and carries little informational value. True whole grains are foods like brown rice, popcorn, or bulgar and contain at least 1/10th of their carbohydrates as fiber. It’s the fiber that makes whole grains healthy, partially by slowing down the rise in blood sugar from the carbohydrate.

Guess how much fiber is in these Scooby Snacks? 1 gram. That’s 1/21th of the snack’s carb content as fiber. Yes, these snacks contain “whole wheat flour” but it’s highly processed, and it will raise blood sugar just as fast as regular white flour.

So, what can parents do if they want to feed their family on a limited budget?

For many, the choice is between eating food that doesn’t serve their health goals or not eating at all. And what can school systems do with limited funds and expanding needs? What can state and federal policymakers do when they have competing funding priorities and powerful corporate lobbyists that want the system to stay the same?

Photographed by Anne Watson

I believe we can do better at all levels, but we can’t wait for change on a larger level to make a change at the local level. We can start small and work out from there.

Here are four ways to advocate change right where you are:

  • Food at home matters: When we taste test something new each week, take field trips to local farms or community gardens, involve the family by making a rainbow at each meal with the colors of food eaten, join a Nourish Live cooking class here in The Daily Thrive... When we do all these things with our kids, we’re modeling that food matters.
  • Educate the educators: Tell your school principal, the food service personnel, and the school district office what you want. Volunteer. Offer to be a “culinary docent,” or a “garden docent.” If you work during the day, you can still get involved by helping coordinate a time when farmers or chefs can come into classrooms for show and tell.
  • Communicate with your votes and dollars: Vote for policymakers who have a food agenda that is oriented toward health over profits, and advocate for your school to raise funds for salad bars, culinary education, and community gardens.
  • The Chef Ann Foundation has a downloadable parent advocacy toolkit that gives many more tips on how you can start a food revolution at your own school.  

The place where we can make the biggest change is with our own child’s lunch.

Here are several strategies to boost our kids' lunches without breaking the bank:

  • Use the best of what they are giving us: unflavored milk, fresh cheese, fruits, and veggies. Ask school officials if they can just provide that to prevent waste. Educate kids on how to make a polite request so as not to offend other children or lunch personnel.
  • Buy veggies in bulk and in season with friends for better pricing.
  • Shop at Walmart superstores–they are the biggest provider of organic foods and have great prices.
  • Use Environmental Working Group (EWG.com) to figure out where best to spend limited dollars on organic foods for the best value and quality.
  • Use a thermos and reusable flatware to pack last night’s healthy dinner.

Better nutrition for our children at all levels is something important to fight for. Together we can create change.

Check out these lunch ideas for inspiration:

And don’t forget about our incredible recipe collection.

Apple Sandwiches

Collard Green Veggie Wrap

Cilantro Field Fresh Salad Shaker

Pro Perspective: Can School Lunches Pack More Than Empty Calories?

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Pro Perspective: Can School Lunches Pack More Than Empty Calories?

Lexi Hall, RDN takes a look at the lunches schools provide and shares healthy changes we can make as parents.

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Key takeaways

1

Our kids' school lunch programs aren't hitting the mark for truly nourishing, real whole foods.

2

Lexi Hall, RDN lists 5 problems with school lunches and offers solutions on how to advocate for healthy change in your community.

3

Lexi also includes ideas on how to make sure your child is getting the nourishment they need from home and future lunches.

Low hassle, high nutrition

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Our national school lunch program provides daily meals to over 29 million students, 20 million of which are provided free of cost. Since kids are in school 180 days a year on average, that adds up to a lot of school lunches. This program was a huge safety net during the COVID pandemic, as schools relied on grab-and-go distribution that allowed adults to pick up the meals without the children present and without requiring payment.

Before and after the pandemic, the US school lunch program has done the job of getting calories into kids’ bellies. And as a dietitian and a mother concerned about hunger and malnutrition, I don’t scoff at that.

But as a dietitian and mother, I also believe that food can be medicine or poison and that the quality of food being served in schools across the country is harming our kids’ metabolic health. We can see this in continued increases in childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

We can’t fix problems we don’t understand clearly. In this edition of Pro Perspective, I’m going to outline what’s wrong with school lunches today, and what we can do about it.

Let’s use this picture (taken by our Director of Marketing and professional food photographer, Anne Watson) of a week’s worth of her son’s school lunches.

Photographed by Anne Watson


Five Big Problems With School Lunches


1. Way too much sugar

Healthy food advocates have been successful in banning sodas from school lunches, but high-sugar culprits like chocolate milk and fruit juice remain. Juice especially can have almost as much sugar as an equivalent amount of soda.

Another item that stands out in the pictures above include the dried cranberries, which the USDA considers a day’s serving of fruit, but they have 21 grams of added sugar (not naturally occurring fruit sugar).

Compare this to the kiwi, which has a net 8 grams of carbohydrates, zero added sugar, and provides 85% of the entire day’s intake of Vitamin C. And Scooby Snacks? At 21 grams of refined carbohydrates and 8 grams of added sugar, they’re not even healthy for a dog.

Photographed by Anne Watson
Photographed by Anne Watson


2. Too low in protein

Less than 15% of the calories in a typical school lunch come from protein. The rest of the calories mostly come from refined carbohydrates and fat. Ideally, we want our meals to be at least 20% protein.

As we describe in this One Big Idea article on the protein leverage hypothesis, nearly everyone is getting way too little protein and way too much refined carbohydrates and fat. It’s this out-of-whack ratio that is the main cause of metabolic disease.

3. Low-quality protein

A 2009 investigation by USA Today found that what was served in the School Lunch Program didn’t meet quality or safety standards for Fast Food Restaurants! This has improved, but shelf-stable mini cheeseburgers? We can do better.

4. Too little fresh food

The need for grab-and-go, especially during the pandemic is understandable and is clearly a huge logistical challenge. But fresh, whole real food provides special health-promoting micro-nutrients that packaged and processed food cannot.

Nutrients like polyphenols and other antioxidants support our immune system and help us thrive. We have to do better than the 6 fresh foods out of the 19 items that are shown in the top picture for a week’s worth of food.

5. Misleading nutrition labels

Labeling like the Whole Grain Council on the Scooby Snacks is for marketing purposes and carries little informational value. True whole grains are foods like brown rice, popcorn, or bulgar and contain at least 1/10th of their carbohydrates as fiber. It’s the fiber that makes whole grains healthy, partially by slowing down the rise in blood sugar from the carbohydrate.

Guess how much fiber is in these Scooby Snacks? 1 gram. That’s 1/21th of the snack’s carb content as fiber. Yes, these snacks contain “whole wheat flour” but it’s highly processed, and it will raise blood sugar just as fast as regular white flour.

So, what can parents do if they want to feed their family on a limited budget?

For many, the choice is between eating food that doesn’t serve their health goals or not eating at all. And what can school systems do with limited funds and expanding needs? What can state and federal policymakers do when they have competing funding priorities and powerful corporate lobbyists that want the system to stay the same?

Photographed by Anne Watson

I believe we can do better at all levels, but we can’t wait for change on a larger level to make a change at the local level. We can start small and work out from there.

Here are four ways to advocate change right where you are:

  • Food at home matters: When we taste test something new each week, take field trips to local farms or community gardens, involve the family by making a rainbow at each meal with the colors of food eaten, join a Nourish Live cooking class here in The Daily Thrive... When we do all these things with our kids, we’re modeling that food matters.
  • Educate the educators: Tell your school principal, the food service personnel, and the school district office what you want. Volunteer. Offer to be a “culinary docent,” or a “garden docent.” If you work during the day, you can still get involved by helping coordinate a time when farmers or chefs can come into classrooms for show and tell.
  • Communicate with your votes and dollars: Vote for policymakers who have a food agenda that is oriented toward health over profits, and advocate for your school to raise funds for salad bars, culinary education, and community gardens.
  • The Chef Ann Foundation has a downloadable parent advocacy toolkit that gives many more tips on how you can start a food revolution at your own school.  

The place where we can make the biggest change is with our own child’s lunch.

Here are several strategies to boost our kids' lunches without breaking the bank:

  • Use the best of what they are giving us: unflavored milk, fresh cheese, fruits, and veggies. Ask school officials if they can just provide that to prevent waste. Educate kids on how to make a polite request so as not to offend other children or lunch personnel.
  • Buy veggies in bulk and in season with friends for better pricing.
  • Shop at Walmart superstores–they are the biggest provider of organic foods and have great prices.
  • Use Environmental Working Group (EWG.com) to figure out where best to spend limited dollars on organic foods for the best value and quality.
  • Use a thermos and reusable flatware to pack last night’s healthy dinner.

Better nutrition for our children at all levels is something important to fight for. Together we can create change.

Check out these lunch ideas for inspiration:

And don’t forget about our incredible recipe collection.

Apple Sandwiches

Collard Green Veggie Wrap

Cilantro Field Fresh Salad Shaker

Our national school lunch program provides daily meals to over 29 million students, 20 million of which are provided free of cost. Since kids are in school 180 days a year on average, that adds up to a lot of school lunches. This program was a huge safety net during the COVID pandemic, as schools relied on grab-and-go distribution that allowed adults to pick up the meals without the children present and without requiring payment.

Before and after the pandemic, the US school lunch program has done the job of getting calories into kids’ bellies. And as a dietitian and a mother concerned about hunger and malnutrition, I don’t scoff at that.

But as a dietitian and mother, I also believe that food can be medicine or poison and that the quality of food being served in schools across the country is harming our kids’ metabolic health. We can see this in continued increases in childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

We can’t fix problems we don’t understand clearly. In this edition of Pro Perspective, I’m going to outline what’s wrong with school lunches today, and what we can do about it.

Let’s use this picture (taken by our Director of Marketing and professional food photographer, Anne Watson) of a week’s worth of her son’s school lunches.

Photographed by Anne Watson


Five Big Problems With School Lunches


1. Way too much sugar

Healthy food advocates have been successful in banning sodas from school lunches, but high-sugar culprits like chocolate milk and fruit juice remain. Juice especially can have almost as much sugar as an equivalent amount of soda.

Another item that stands out in the pictures above include the dried cranberries, which the USDA considers a day’s serving of fruit, but they have 21 grams of added sugar (not naturally occurring fruit sugar).

Compare this to the kiwi, which has a net 8 grams of carbohydrates, zero added sugar, and provides 85% of the entire day’s intake of Vitamin C. And Scooby Snacks? At 21 grams of refined carbohydrates and 8 grams of added sugar, they’re not even healthy for a dog.

Photographed by Anne Watson
Photographed by Anne Watson


2. Too low in protein

Less than 15% of the calories in a typical school lunch come from protein. The rest of the calories mostly come from refined carbohydrates and fat. Ideally, we want our meals to be at least 20% protein.

As we describe in this One Big Idea article on the protein leverage hypothesis, nearly everyone is getting way too little protein and way too much refined carbohydrates and fat. It’s this out-of-whack ratio that is the main cause of metabolic disease.

3. Low-quality protein

A 2009 investigation by USA Today found that what was served in the School Lunch Program didn’t meet quality or safety standards for Fast Food Restaurants! This has improved, but shelf-stable mini cheeseburgers? We can do better.

4. Too little fresh food

The need for grab-and-go, especially during the pandemic is understandable and is clearly a huge logistical challenge. But fresh, whole real food provides special health-promoting micro-nutrients that packaged and processed food cannot.

Nutrients like polyphenols and other antioxidants support our immune system and help us thrive. We have to do better than the 6 fresh foods out of the 19 items that are shown in the top picture for a week’s worth of food.

5. Misleading nutrition labels

Labeling like the Whole Grain Council on the Scooby Snacks is for marketing purposes and carries little informational value. True whole grains are foods like brown rice, popcorn, or bulgar and contain at least 1/10th of their carbohydrates as fiber. It’s the fiber that makes whole grains healthy, partially by slowing down the rise in blood sugar from the carbohydrate.

Guess how much fiber is in these Scooby Snacks? 1 gram. That’s 1/21th of the snack’s carb content as fiber. Yes, these snacks contain “whole wheat flour” but it’s highly processed, and it will raise blood sugar just as fast as regular white flour.

So, what can parents do if they want to feed their family on a limited budget?

For many, the choice is between eating food that doesn’t serve their health goals or not eating at all. And what can school systems do with limited funds and expanding needs? What can state and federal policymakers do when they have competing funding priorities and powerful corporate lobbyists that want the system to stay the same?

Photographed by Anne Watson

I believe we can do better at all levels, but we can’t wait for change on a larger level to make a change at the local level. We can start small and work out from there.

Here are four ways to advocate change right where you are:

  • Food at home matters: When we taste test something new each week, take field trips to local farms or community gardens, involve the family by making a rainbow at each meal with the colors of food eaten, join a Nourish Live cooking class here in The Daily Thrive... When we do all these things with our kids, we’re modeling that food matters.
  • Educate the educators: Tell your school principal, the food service personnel, and the school district office what you want. Volunteer. Offer to be a “culinary docent,” or a “garden docent.” If you work during the day, you can still get involved by helping coordinate a time when farmers or chefs can come into classrooms for show and tell.
  • Communicate with your votes and dollars: Vote for policymakers who have a food agenda that is oriented toward health over profits, and advocate for your school to raise funds for salad bars, culinary education, and community gardens.
  • The Chef Ann Foundation has a downloadable parent advocacy toolkit that gives many more tips on how you can start a food revolution at your own school.  

The place where we can make the biggest change is with our own child’s lunch.

Here are several strategies to boost our kids' lunches without breaking the bank:

  • Use the best of what they are giving us: unflavored milk, fresh cheese, fruits, and veggies. Ask school officials if they can just provide that to prevent waste. Educate kids on how to make a polite request so as not to offend other children or lunch personnel.
  • Buy veggies in bulk and in season with friends for better pricing.
  • Shop at Walmart superstores–they are the biggest provider of organic foods and have great prices.
  • Use Environmental Working Group (EWG.com) to figure out where best to spend limited dollars on organic foods for the best value and quality.
  • Use a thermos and reusable flatware to pack last night’s healthy dinner.

Better nutrition for our children at all levels is something important to fight for. Together we can create change.

Check out these lunch ideas for inspiration:

And don’t forget about our incredible recipe collection.

Apple Sandwiches

Collard Green Veggie Wrap

Cilantro Field Fresh Salad Shaker

Our national school lunch program provides daily meals to over 29 million students, 20 million of which are provided free of cost. Since kids are in school 180 days a year on average, that adds up to a lot of school lunches. This program was a huge safety net during the COVID pandemic, as schools relied on grab-and-go distribution that allowed adults to pick up the meals without the children present and without requiring payment.

Before and after the pandemic, the US school lunch program has done the job of getting calories into kids’ bellies. And as a dietitian and a mother concerned about hunger and malnutrition, I don’t scoff at that.

But as a dietitian and mother, I also believe that food can be medicine or poison and that the quality of food being served in schools across the country is harming our kids’ metabolic health. We can see this in continued increases in childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

We can’t fix problems we don’t understand clearly. In this edition of Pro Perspective, I’m going to outline what’s wrong with school lunches today, and what we can do about it.

Let’s use this picture (taken by our Director of Marketing and professional food photographer, Anne Watson) of a week’s worth of her son’s school lunches.

Photographed by Anne Watson


Five Big Problems With School Lunches


1. Way too much sugar

Healthy food advocates have been successful in banning sodas from school lunches, but high-sugar culprits like chocolate milk and fruit juice remain. Juice especially can have almost as much sugar as an equivalent amount of soda.

Another item that stands out in the pictures above include the dried cranberries, which the USDA considers a day’s serving of fruit, but they have 21 grams of added sugar (not naturally occurring fruit sugar).

Compare this to the kiwi, which has a net 8 grams of carbohydrates, zero added sugar, and provides 85% of the entire day’s intake of Vitamin C. And Scooby Snacks? At 21 grams of refined carbohydrates and 8 grams of added sugar, they’re not even healthy for a dog.

Photographed by Anne Watson
Photographed by Anne Watson


2. Too low in protein

Less than 15% of the calories in a typical school lunch come from protein. The rest of the calories mostly come from refined carbohydrates and fat. Ideally, we want our meals to be at least 20% protein.

As we describe in this One Big Idea article on the protein leverage hypothesis, nearly everyone is getting way too little protein and way too much refined carbohydrates and fat. It’s this out-of-whack ratio that is the main cause of metabolic disease.

3. Low-quality protein

A 2009 investigation by USA Today found that what was served in the School Lunch Program didn’t meet quality or safety standards for Fast Food Restaurants! This has improved, but shelf-stable mini cheeseburgers? We can do better.

4. Too little fresh food

The need for grab-and-go, especially during the pandemic is understandable and is clearly a huge logistical challenge. But fresh, whole real food provides special health-promoting micro-nutrients that packaged and processed food cannot.

Nutrients like polyphenols and other antioxidants support our immune system and help us thrive. We have to do better than the 6 fresh foods out of the 19 items that are shown in the top picture for a week’s worth of food.

5. Misleading nutrition labels

Labeling like the Whole Grain Council on the Scooby Snacks is for marketing purposes and carries little informational value. True whole grains are foods like brown rice, popcorn, or bulgar and contain at least 1/10th of their carbohydrates as fiber. It’s the fiber that makes whole grains healthy, partially by slowing down the rise in blood sugar from the carbohydrate.

Guess how much fiber is in these Scooby Snacks? 1 gram. That’s 1/21th of the snack’s carb content as fiber. Yes, these snacks contain “whole wheat flour” but it’s highly processed, and it will raise blood sugar just as fast as regular white flour.

So, what can parents do if they want to feed their family on a limited budget?

For many, the choice is between eating food that doesn’t serve their health goals or not eating at all. And what can school systems do with limited funds and expanding needs? What can state and federal policymakers do when they have competing funding priorities and powerful corporate lobbyists that want the system to stay the same?

Photographed by Anne Watson

I believe we can do better at all levels, but we can’t wait for change on a larger level to make a change at the local level. We can start small and work out from there.

Here are four ways to advocate change right where you are:

  • Food at home matters: When we taste test something new each week, take field trips to local farms or community gardens, involve the family by making a rainbow at each meal with the colors of food eaten, join a Nourish Live cooking class here in The Daily Thrive... When we do all these things with our kids, we’re modeling that food matters.
  • Educate the educators: Tell your school principal, the food service personnel, and the school district office what you want. Volunteer. Offer to be a “culinary docent,” or a “garden docent.” If you work during the day, you can still get involved by helping coordinate a time when farmers or chefs can come into classrooms for show and tell.
  • Communicate with your votes and dollars: Vote for policymakers who have a food agenda that is oriented toward health over profits, and advocate for your school to raise funds for salad bars, culinary education, and community gardens.
  • The Chef Ann Foundation has a downloadable parent advocacy toolkit that gives many more tips on how you can start a food revolution at your own school.  

The place where we can make the biggest change is with our own child’s lunch.

Here are several strategies to boost our kids' lunches without breaking the bank:

  • Use the best of what they are giving us: unflavored milk, fresh cheese, fruits, and veggies. Ask school officials if they can just provide that to prevent waste. Educate kids on how to make a polite request so as not to offend other children or lunch personnel.
  • Buy veggies in bulk and in season with friends for better pricing.
  • Shop at Walmart superstores–they are the biggest provider of organic foods and have great prices.
  • Use Environmental Working Group (EWG.com) to figure out where best to spend limited dollars on organic foods for the best value and quality.
  • Use a thermos and reusable flatware to pack last night’s healthy dinner.

Better nutrition for our children at all levels is something important to fight for. Together we can create change.

Check out these lunch ideas for inspiration:

And don’t forget about our incredible recipe collection.

Apple Sandwiches

Collard Green Veggie Wrap

Cilantro Field Fresh Salad Shaker

Enjoying this? Subscribe to The Family Thrive for more healthy recipes, video classes, and more.

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