The reason we still serve hot lunch in school cafeterias is because districts nationwide recognize that well-nourished kids are better equipped to learn.
The science is simple. Glucose—also known as blood sugar—is the brain’s basic fuel. Consistent and balanced meals help students do all sorts of academic tasks, like concentrate, listen and keep behavior in check, according to registered dietitian nutritionist Jessica Crandall.
Most American kids consume half of their daily calories at school, so what’s served in the cafeteria can have a big impact—especially on low-income children whose parents can’t send sack lunches, and might not have the time and/or resources to provide the highest quality nutrition at home. In America, 42 million people are at risk of suffering from hunger, and 1 in 5 children live in poverty, which is why the annual Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week was created: to highlight the problem, educate the public and build up the base of volunteers and supporters, too.
Thanks to a federally assisted meal program called the National School Lunch Program, it doesn’t cost much to get a hot plate at participating Colorado schools. For example, in my hometown, Denver Public Schools (DPS) prices lunches between $2 and $2.75, with rates increasing by grade level. Reduced price lunches are just 40 cents, and, this year, the state is footing the bill for elementary students.
Nearby, in the Cherry Creek School District, lunches are pricier, ranging from $3 to $3.15. You get what you pay for, with main course items such as hot dogs, pepperoni French bread pizza and a seemingly wholesome bean and cheese burrito that’s loaded with things like textured vegetable protein product, caramel food coloring and a bunch of preservatives you don’t want to know about.
Colorado public schools have small budgets and lots to worry about—and maybe that’s why for most districts, food service hasn’t always been a priority. My biggest complaints with school lunches are artificial preservatives, synthetic food dyes and sugar. But because good nutrition looks different to different people, I’m only tackling sugar here.
The average American child consumes a whopping 32 teaspoons of sugar daily, which adds up to over 130 pounds in a year. Moderately and highly processed foods–refined breads, cookies, breakfast cereal, canned fruit, baked beans and even seemingly healthy fare like low-fat yogurt and pre-packaged soup–are often packed with sugar.
Beyond long-term health effects, consuming too much sugar causes immediate reactions by spiking blood glucose levels, which in turn makes our blood sugar drop. The result? When our blood sugar drops, we feel tired and unable to focus—not exactly ideal during the school day. Overeating pasta, white potatoes and corn can have the same outcome, for the same reasons.
Cafeteria food has come a long way since I was a kid. The most sweeping nutrition reforms came in 2010, when President Barack Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which improved nutrition standards by redefining the food pyramid and giving the USDA authority to set new standards in cafeterias—standards setting minimums on fruits and vegetables and maximums on sodium and sugar.
Problem is, school food budgets aren’t increasing on pace with national standards. In fact, it seems unfair to ask our schools to make healthy lunches with the pennies they’re provided.
A typical price-per-plate allocation in a public school is $1.20, I’m told. And if you’ve ever gone grocery shopping and then cooked a healthy, well-rounded meal at home, well, you’re probably laughing right now, too.
To provide low-cost lunches to all students, most districts must feel forced to settle for cheap ingredients and pre-packaged, highly processed meals.
For what it’s worth, DPS is trying—hard. The district launched a scratch-cooking program, and currently makes at least half of its meals in-house, lowering the use of preservatives, sodium and sugar. DPS has a progressive Garden to Cafeteria program, too, that’s been implemented in eighty of its 200 schools, allowing students to grow fresh vegetables on-site, with the aim of supplying some of their harvest to their cafeterias.
There’s a salad bar in every DPS school—though, honestly, I’ve sat in on over a dozen DPS school lunches this year alone, and I’ve yet to see a single lower-elementary student use their salad bar. The food might be getting more nutritious, but it’s still kind of gross. So I pack my kids’ lunches. I can afford to do that. My kids are lucky.
So are the kids who attend schools in the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), where Chef Ann Cooper—a classically trained chef—serves up homemade meals prepared with locally grown produce. When Cooper got to Boulder a decade ago, she was met with a typical school menu—frozen chicken nuggets and grilled cheeses in plastic bags, she told me during a recent interview.
Today, 95 percent of the food served in BVSD is scratch-made, and the rest is sourced from local suppliers adhering to Cooper’s high standards, which prohibit things like artificial dyes, high-fructose corn syrup and added sugar. Cooper’s is a meal plan I can really get down with.
In BVSD schools, lunches are priced by age, from $3.50 to $4.00. They’re affordable and healthy—so why isn’t every district doing this?
BVSD’s Food Project is feasible, Cooper says, for any district; hence, Cooper’s latest undertaking is the School Food Institute, an eight-part series of online courses designed to teach foodservice professionals, administrators and advocates how to break away from unhealthy, highly processed lunches. Thanks to a donation from The Colorado Health Foundation, any school foodservice professional in the state can attend the institute for free. Cooper definitely has the right idea, but I’m skeptical.
It’s not exactly fair to compare BVSD with a district like DPS. BVSD has 30,000 students in 56 schools. According to statistics from 2014, nearly three-quarters of kids are White, and less than 30 percent receive free or reduced lunch. By contrast, DPS serves 92,000 kids in 200 schools. Last year, a little over 68 percent of students—about 63,029—qualified for free or reduced lunch, and the majority were students of color.
All students deserve the academic advantage of good nutrition. Some might need it the more than others. But would it even be possible for a district as large and diverse as DPS to provide such a high-caliber meal service to students? I’m not sure. I’d love to see somebody as talented and innovative as Chef Ann give it a go.