I met my daughter for school lunch today. I rarely let her buy lunch, so it was a double treat-- buying lunch and having her parents there (my husband met us too).
I had seen the school lunch menu and was not impressed. Corn dogs, pizza, chicken nuggets, and always a choice of yogurt if they don't like the main entree. So I had pretty low expectations. I'm glad to say there were some positives, although there is definitely room for improvement.
We started with milk. We had 3 choices: plain, chocolate or strawberry. I chose plain, but that was the only one I saw at our whole table. Most kids went for chocolate (including my daughter and my husband). The milk was not labeled as low-fat, and I am assuming it was whole! I was pleasantly surprise to see these kids getting healthy fats. I was also very surprised to see "Grade A. Pasteurized." Notice something missing? The milk was not homogenized, and had instructions to "shake well." Homogenization breaks up the delicate fats, so I'm thrilled that the milk is un-homogenized. One environmental note: the milk was served in little pouches as opposed to cardboard containers. I'm just guessing here, but thin plastic like that seems like it would take longer to break down, even though it does take up less space in a landfill.
As we moved down the line, we were able to fill our trays ourselves with orange slices, salad, cucumber slices and baby carrots-- as much as we wanted. The fruits and vegetables were fresh, and most kids took at least some of the fruit and veggies. I liked that they were able to choose, and help themselves to whatever quantities they desired. There was only one type of salad dressing offered- ranch. I put it on my tray, but when I saw the ingredient list, I left it unopened. The ingredients list covered the entire packet, and the first ingredient was soybean oil. Kind of takes away from the healthfulness of the salad if all you have to dip it in is that.
We were on to our entree next. There were three choices. A tostada, macaroni and cheese, something labeled "Taco Nada" that looked like a tamale, or a low-fat strawberry yogurt. My husband and I chose the tostadas. It was a little soggy on the bottom and cooked-in-the-microwave-style crispy on the edges. Our daughter had the neon orange macaroni and cheese. These are the kinds of foods that give school lunch a bad name. Processed, reheated foods with little nutritional value. White noodles in a fake cheese sauce or a melted cheese-like substance on a fried shell are not my idea of healthy choices.
I'd break it down like this: Positives: un-homogenized whole milk offered, fruits and veggies offered, no dessert. Negatives: two of the three milks have added sugar, the only dressing is made with soybean oil and other unhealthy ingredients, the entree is highly processed. So, while they has lots of room for improvement, I'd give the overall lunch a C+. School lunches have long been known for being less-than-desirable, but our school is trying.
Being at school lunch today brought back a memory from my own school days of Brad Benner following me around the playground asking me if I liked soggy hamburger buns. I could see he was holding something under his shirt, so it was with caution that I asked, "Why are you asking?" "Just answer the question," he insisted. "No, I don't like them." I said, still wary. Out from under his shirt came a petition and a pen. "Sign your name here if you don't like soggy hamburger buns." I signed. And you know what? We still had hamburgers at school, but they changed those soggy buns. Instead of heating the burger and bun together, which did make a soggy bun on the bottom, they heated them separately. It was a simple solution, and the most amazing thing of all is that the change was brought on by an elementary school student.
Maybe we need to start another petition for healthier school lunches. Until there are significant changes, my daughter will continue to bring her lunch. But what about all the kids who have parents who don't think they have time to bring a lunch, get school lunch paid for, or just don't care? It's for those kids, that are eating this food every day, that something needs to change.