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School Lunch Tray

Don't ask my wife about the lunches at the school in which she works. She'll wax indignant for hours about the day they served spaghetti, tater tots, corn, and a sticky bun—a nutritionally barren carb-fest so intense she swears she got diabetes just from reading the menu. So what do we do when our cafeterias put junk on every tray?

That's the question the USDA asked last year when it sized up the state of the nation's school lunches and found them giving experts and parents alike serious indigestion. There was a ton of salt, too much sugar, loads of fats, and meal after meal filling kids up with empty calories. So the agency cooked up the first significant changes to school lunch regulations in more than 15 years.

That plan is being phased in starting this fall. It's not perfect—bowing to food industry pressure, for example, the agency declined to limit the sugar content of lunches and chose to lower sodium over time—but it's a healthy start that calls for daily fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, fewer fats, and low-fat milks.

Changes like these are critically important for the 32 million kids that eat lunch at school because 17% of all children and teenagers are obese(1),  and that number is rising faster than whole wheat dough. Still, many say schools can and should be doing more.

Some are already putting positive change on every tray. They've added salad bars and school gardens. Farm-to-school programs are filling pots with fresh local edibles, and chefs are being invited to design menus. Some have asked for family recipes, and many are making healthier substitutions like sweet potato fries for tater tots.

How can you dish up ideas like these in your own school and make sure everyone finds them palatable? Here are some strategies:

  • First, do your schoolwork and visit the cafeteria at lunch time to check out the food and see what criticisms and compliments are in order.
  • Do some research to see how other schools are changing their menus. It's good to know what you're aiming for!
  • There's power in numbers so find some like-minded parents and create a lunch committee. If one already exists, join it!
  • Create and prioritize a list of changes you'd like to see. Not all have to involve food. You may also want to reduce packaging or create a better cafeteria environment.
  • Don't just barge in and hand the cafeteria staff a list of demands. Talk to school administrators and food service staff and explore the best ways to make changes together.
  • Help out by developing budget strategies, locating recipes, and identifying new resources.
  • Include a student education component so kids understand what the new menus are all about and have the knowledge they need to make healthier food choices.
  • Be patient! Recipes for school lunch success often take a long time to prepare but that even small victories along the way deserve to be celebrated.

If your school lunch program is starved for quality, these ingredients for change will help you whip up something better in the kitchen. To whet your appetite, here are some resources I've compiled. Bon appetit!

USDA Healthy Meals Resource System

Improving Your School's Food Program

How to Improve School Lunch

Beyond Chicken Patties: How To Improve School Lunch Without Spending More

Healthy School Lunches

Chefs Move to Schools

The New York Coalition for Healthy School Food

The National Farm-to-School Network

The Lunch Box


(1)Both figures from NBC News

Photo: SpecialKRB

Geoff the Inkslinger and his Dog

The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!