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What We Can All Learn from the Healthy School Lunch Boycott

By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD

Child with School Lunch

There’s been a lot of talk about how kids are pushing back on the new “healthy” school lunches. Some teens are boycotting the lunches, as you can see from this popular You tube video “We Are Hungry.”

The argument goes something like this: healthcare professionals say the lunches, at 850 calories (for teens), are more than enough to satisfy. But active kids say they are hungry after eating them and they need more food.

But I say there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye — and this is an opportunity for everyone to learn something.

New Lunches 101

For the first time in 30 years, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids of 2010 gave USDA the green light to reform child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. The students are now being offered both fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, low-fat or fat-free milk, less saturated fat and sodium, and calorie limits based on age.

The calorie limits seem to be the biggest sticking point, with an allotted 650 for elementary school kids, 700 for middle school, and 850 for high schools.

Managing hunger more than limiting calories

I don’t love calorie limits for kids but that is beside the point. What we can learn from kids complaining about hunger is it is imperative for children to learn how to manage it. After all, puberty is the second largest growth spurt in the lifecycle and we should be teaching children the skills of honoring their appetite and nourishing themselves during such rapid growth.

According to a recent survey, only 36% of adolescents eat breakfast on a daily basis, as Dayle Hayes, MS, RD points out in her series on why kids are hungry. But a bigger problem is skipping breakfast in adolescence has been linked to excess weight in study after study.

I think this is an opportunity to talk to teens about how to keep hunger at bay and energy high throughout the day. Very active teens can need as much as 3200 calories a day, so they will need more than school lunch can provide, but I understand school lunch can’t please everyone — and most kids will not need that much.
Let’s Drop “Healthy” as the marketing tool

I wonder what would have happened if this reform was touted as an improvement on food quality and taste with nutrition benefits getting a side mention. Whether we like it or not, taste is the prime motivator for both kids and adults.

According to a 2007 study published in International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, kids older than 6 had negative taste impressions of “healthy” foods. Telling kids that the new lunch is healthy and good for them may help set the expectation that they aren’t going to be satisfying.

We need to rethink how we market food to kids — making sure taste and satisfaction take center stage.

It’s not just what schools fed but how

Many of the parents I know with school-age children complain that their kids don’t have enough time to eat — which is even more true for those eating school lunch because they have to wait in line to get their food.

I understand the need to improve quality lunches, but without enough time to eat kids are going to grab the more desirable item and throw out the rest. Many of these children are also new to fruits and vegetables and it will take time for them to warm up to them.

So instead of just focusing on nutrition and making sure children take what is required, let’s show them food — and eating– is a priority by giving them enough time to enjoy.

There is a lot more to raising healthy eaters than putting a nutritious meal in front of them. If we are going to make a difference in this country, we have to think more broadly than fruits and vegetables.

What do you think about the new school lunches?

Photo: liquidlibrary

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