Nutrition: The Problem with School Meals

Nutrition: The Problem with School Meals

Bad eating habits in United States slowly leading to obesity


By Jihane Rodriguez

Houston, Texas – There is no denial America is number one when it comes to junk food consumption.  “The U.S. has the largest fast-food industry in the world, generating $191 billion in annual sales” IBISWorld, a research company based in Santa Monica, California, found in a study. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, CDC, “Adults consumed an average of 11.3% of their daily calories from fast food in 2007-2010.” Supersized meals, free soda refills, and a manic lack of time to actually cook a meal have driven society into a plastic food overload. This phenomenon creates not only a vast range of health problems to our society, but corrodes culture, and our current state of self preservation. Bad habits are usually hard to beat. According to Patricia M. Anderson and Kristin F. Butcher, in their study Childhood Obesity: Trends and Potential Causes “…Among the changes that affect children’s energy intake are the increasing availability of energy-dense, high-calorie foods and drinks through schools.”

In a separate study CDC also found calorie intake of all food among youths age 2 to 19 fell between the 1999-2000 period and 2009-2010. The percentage of calories from protein, carbohydrates and fat fell within recommendations for this age group, the study shows. The share of calories from saturated fat, 11% to 12%, was still more than the 10% recommended in U.S. dietary guidelines, the CDC says.

But are the schools or the parents to blame? Where does the never-ending loop of bad consumption start and where does it end?  Or is it our economy feeding our mind 24/7 with messages corrupted by greasy burgers, creamy milkshakes and frozen pizza commercials?

In January of 2010, an elementary school teacher, Wu, 34, decided to eat school lunch meals every day for a year and write about it anonymously as Mrs. Q. on her blog, Fed Up With Lunch. Wu, didn’t have time to pack her own lunch one day and bought a school lunch instead.

“It was a hot dog encased in soggy dough, six tater tots, a Jell-O cup and chocolate milk”, reports USA Today. “I thought to myself, ‘I cannot believe this is the food the kids are eating.” Wu said.

Perhaps part of the problem is that parents don’t realize what their kids are eating at school. Are we really not aware or do we simply comply due to lack of time?  In a fast paced society in which many families constitute of only one parent keeping up with healthy eating habits can be hard, yet many other countries manage, so why don’t we.

On the other hand the economy has affected the way many eat. Fresh fruit and vegetables as well as lean meat can be more expensive than the frozen variety, or eating out at fast food chains.

According to the BBC and a report conducted in 2005, critics say that school lunches [in the country] contribute to the fattening of the United States. Many of the school meals do not meet nutrition standards and mostly consist in a high intake of fats and processed meats. According to the BBC, Dr Walter Willett, head of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, says of the foods offered to schools by the Department of Agriculture: “Their foods tend to be at the bottom of the barrel in terms of healthy nutrition.”

“Their foods tend to be at the bottom of the barrel in terms of healthy nutrition.” Dr. Walter Willet.

The United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Services claims to offer several programs that provide healthy food to children.  Including the  Healthier US School Challenge (HUSSC) which is a voluntary certification initiative established in 2004 to recognize those schools participating in the National School Lunch Program that have created healthier school environments through promotion of nutrition and physical activity. But is this enough? Schools across the states are still serving heavily processed meats, and canned fruit and vegetables. They claim to have awarded certificates to 5,524, yet the total number of schools is unknown, so it is hard to make a comparison.

School meals in the US include pizza and nachos, mystery meat tacos and turkey sandwiches, canned fruits, hot dogs, and burgers. When compared with school meals served in other countries across the world it is clear that American kids are lacking in the food variety and nutritional food area.  Another astonishing fact is that American schools don’t offer a vegetarian or Halal choice to students. Some children, either by choice, religion or dietary needs, do not consume red meats or sadly do not have a choice when it comes to consuming school meals.

My son loves to eat fresh fruit and salads, it’s a shame schools here don’t offer those options. He won’t eat any beef at school. No tacos, no burgers, nothing and when he doesn’t he simply goes hungry the rest of the day.

In the UK, Halal choices are always – or nearly always – a choice. Granted the Muslim population in the UK might be higher than the Muslim population in Texas.

“Vegetarian option is offered but no halal/kosher, although some schools with greater Muslim/Jewish population do.” Says Ayesha Hafiz, Mother of two, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England.

On the fruit topic, Americans seem to have a tendency to serve frozen or can fruits rather than the fresh variety. At school they give them [kids] Jell-O Fruit Cups and other fruit swimming in sweet processed juice, and i am sorry but It’s not the same as fresh fruit.

In the UK, “Fresh fruit is available not only during lunch time but throughout the day when children can help themselves.” Ayesha Hafiz said.


 Fresh fruit not only has less additives and sugar than the Jell-O Fruit cups variety, but also constitutes a larger intake of vitamins, fiber and calcium. The sugar present in fresh fruit comes from natural sources such as fructose, and not from corn syrup or other forms of processed sugar.

When comparing school meals in the States with those around the world there the reality is quite shocking. Is this what our kids are eating?

School Meals around the World

From top to bottom
Brazil, Japan

Back in May 2009, British chef Jamie Oliver was set to tackle America’s obesity crisis in a prime-time ABC series. Jamie Oliver had already changed the school meals mind set in the United Kingdom. Oliver trained schools to cook affordable, healthy meals with greater nutritional value without breaking their tight budgets. “Oliver filmed for over two years in the London borough of Greenwich (for School Dinners) and the Yorkshire town of Rotherham (for Ministry) and inspired people there to change their unhealthy diets of takeaways and ready meals in favor of cooking fresh, nutritious food whilst saving money.” Channel 4, UK, states in Jamie’s School Dinners page.

According to Jamie Oliver’s Camp, in 2005, Oliver’s series Jamie’s School Dinners led to a public outcry about the state of school food in Britain and resulted in over £500m of British government investment in new, nutritious school meals. Recent research suggested that the new meals had been instrumental in improving both attendance and exam results.


Jamie’s School Dinners. Channel 4. UK

Jamie Oliver series in America was a failure. The newspaper on their article U.S. loses appetite for Jamie Oliver as 75 LA school districts turn away his Food Revolution show By David Gardner, 18 January 2011, said “Education insiders claim Los Angeles school canteen staff didn’t want to risk being embarrassed at a time when budget cuts have made it even more difficult to serve up healthy food.“ Whichever the reason was, it was clear US wasn’t ready for a redesign of their school meal system.

 The change has to come from above. There won’t be a change, until the government realizes the importance of nutritional, well balanced meals and implements strict strategies and regulations. Obama’s administration seems to have turned into the subject, and as for now, it looks like there might be hope for school meals in the future. Earlier this year The Obama administration proposed regulations Friday that would prohibit U.S. schools from selling unhealthy snacks.

“Although nutrition standards for foods sold at school alone may not be a determining factor in children’s overall diets, they are critical to providing children with healthy food options throughout the entire school day,” the proposed rule states.

It’s a start.

In the meantime all we can do as parents is to motivate our kids to eat healthy, starting at home.




2 thoughts on “Nutrition: The Problem with School Meals

    1. Thank you Roxy! this is a subject I feel quite passionate about.. I’ll try to bring more posts like this. Please do share if you have any suggestions


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