Years ago, I worked at an upscale private school that hired a renowned chef to cook healthy, organic meals for the kids in attendance. To keep standards high, no outside food was allowed on school premises. The faculty swooned over offerings such as steamed lobster, arugula and fennel salad, miso soup, and the like. The students, on the other hand, complained, whined, and went without lunch day after day. They hated the fare. Their parents worried. Some students raised such a fuss that their parents eventually transferred them to public schools, where they could enjoy peanut butter, burgers, fries, and other "kid food."
Given that experience, it's hardly surprising to read that Michelle Obama's school lunch plan has few fans among the kid set. The plan sets limits on calories and sodium, eliminates trans fats, increases the proportion of fresh vegetables and fruits while decreasing meat, and calls for whole grains to substitute for white breads. While many parents and experts hailed the plan as an important improvement, the kids sure didn't seem to see it that way. Since implementation, the press has been carrying reports indicating that children don't like the whole grain offerings and bemoan the sudden absence of their fried favorites. A March article in the Washington Times claimed that over a million students had dropped out of the School Lunch Program as a result of the changes. The article also cited boycotts led by middle- and high-school students to protest the "unappetizing" new fare.1
While most health-food advocates shrug off such reports and insist that kids will get used to healthier choices, a group of researchers at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University decided to take the scientific approach and investigate just how much young children were rebelling against the more virtuous offerings.2 They visited 10 different New York schools at lunchtime and observed 274 kindergarteners through second graders. The menu featured chicken and vegetables on the observation day. While most of the kids (79 percent) put the chicken on their plate, only slightly more than half of them chose a fruit (58 percent) or a vegetable (59 percent) to go along with it. Virtually all of the children took milk and bread.
The bad news isn't that almost half of all the kids didn't take any fruits or vegetables--because from the glass-half-full point of view--another half did, in fact, take the healthier choices. The real problem is that among those who did choose fruit or vegetable, most didn't eat them. In fact, they didn't even take a single nibble. A full 76 percent of the kids who took fruits and vegetable never touched them, except to throw them away.
Study Director Dr. Susan M. Gross at Johns Hopkins says, "We have been thinking that if young children choose healthy food, they will eat it. But our research shows that is not necessarily so."
Of course, there's no way of knowing just how unappetizing the vegetables and fruit served by the school cafeterias actually were. The study abstract does not detail the type of vegetables served or whether they were fresh or canned or frozen. There are no photos to illustrate what foods the kids were rejecting. We can imagine that the fare was no more appetizing than what we remember ourselves back in the day when we ate in the school cafeteria. Certainly, Twitter is aflutter with photos showing disgusting slop served in various schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program.
But that's beside the point. The point is that even if all the food on the plate was disgusting, the kids managed to eat the protein and bread, but had no appetite for the vegetables or fruit. In other words, kids will eat a disgusting, overcooked hunk of fatty stewed chicken more readily than a portion of disgusting stewed carrots.
The fact is that kids tend to enjoy junk food, even more, perhaps, than adults do. And yes, they'll resist healthier options. In response to these facts, politicians and school authorities alike have been pressuring the government to roll back the Obama standards. Cafeteria workers complain that it takes too long to prepare vegetables and healthy foods; schools say it's too expensive. Already, the USDA has bowed to such pressure, dropping ceilings on portions of grains and proteins served because kids were complaining they were hungry. Now, the leader of the House spending committee that oversees the USDA is advocating suspending the standards to work out the kinks in the program.3
But abandoning the standards hardly solves the problem. Clearly, based on obesity statistics and off-the-charts rates of diabetes and other chronic disease, it's urgent that kids learn to eat healthy foods at an early age. Even more, parents need nutritional education to get on board with the changes. A separate study just published out of Baylor University looked at bag lunches 375 kids brought from home.4 These bag lunches got devoured almost entirely, unlike the healthy school lunches. On analysis, the home-packed meals had 88 percent fewer vegetables, 40 percent less fruit, double the sodium, and the meals almost always (90 percent of the time) included chips, desserts, or a sweetened beverage--all verboten in the Obama program
It may be that the parents need more education around wholesome eating, as well as support in getting on board so that the kids don't go home from school to gorge on chips. Kids, too, need to be educated about why fried chicken is off the menu and steamed fish is on. The researchers in the Johns Hopkins study did find that kids ate more of the healthy food--particularly vegetables and whole grains--if a teacher sat at the table with them, or if the noise level in the room was lower, or if they had a longer lunch break. They also ate more of the good stuff if it was cut up into smaller pieces.
It isn't a hopeless battle to get kids eating healthier, although the fight might require patience, creativity, and perseverance. We need to remember that schools don't exist within a vacuum--or as Jon Barron pointed out some 14 years ago, "It takes a village." In his Making Sense of Weight Loss newsletter, Jon reported that the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, decided that there might be something to Hillary Clinton's catchphrase. In conjunction with Tufts University, they set up a program that changed the lifestyle of every child in the city--and changing the school lunch program was only the first step. They:
- Modified the school lunch programs.
- Changed the food in vending machines.
- Included in-school education on diet and nutrition.
- Got the local newspaper to include regular columns showing the mayor eating healthy foods around the city.
- Educated parents and community leaders.
- Got 21 local restaurants to develop healthy menu options for the kids.
The result? It worked. On average, the program eliminated approximately one pound of weight gain over eight months for an eight-year-old child. This may seem small for an individual, but on a population level this reduction in weight gain, observed through a decrease in BMI z-score, translates into large numbers of children moving out of the overweight category. Also, keep in mind that children of that age should gain weight; they're growing. You just don't want that weight to be fat, and that's what the one pound of difference represented--one pound of fat. Over time, one pound of fat less every eight months makes a huge difference in body weight and health.
The bottom line is that we already know what works; we just seem to have forgotten it, or are ignoring it because it requires work from us as opposed to making the kids do all the work.
- 1. Harrington, Elizabeth. "1 M kids stop school lunch due to Michelle Obama's Standards." 6 March 2014. Washington Times. 28 November 2014. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/mar/6/1m-kids-stop-school-lunch-due-michelle-obamas-stan/?page=all
- 2. Desmon, Stephanie. "Young children take but often barely touch healthy cafeteria food options." 17 November 2014. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-11/jhub-yct111214.php
- 3. Jalonick, Mary Clare. "Schools Say Students Are Rejecting New, Healthier Lunch Options." 5 May 2014. Business Insider. 28 November 2014. http://www.businessinsider.com/schools-say-students-are-rejecting-new-healthier-lunch-options-2014-5
- 4. Scudellari, Megan. "Brown Bag or Cafeteria Tray, Kids Don't Eat Healthy School Lunch." 24 November 2014. Bloomberg. 28 November 2014. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-11-24/yuck-students-not-eating-nutrition-program-s-healthy-lunches.html