If my daughter, Kate, had bought her lunch at school today, here’s what she would be eating: macaroni and cheese, sausage links, dinner roll, canned pineapple, and milk (probably chocolate). Fat chance the pasta would be whole grain. As for the sausage, I wouldn’t count on chicken or turkey links. Take it from me, having volunteered in the cafeteria at Kate’s school and talked to moms at countless others, the lunch choices are lousy and the quality of the food served stinks too.
With all the hoopla last week about the USDA’s new rules for school lunch, I was hoping to get some relief from filling up her lunchbox next year. But then I actually read the 280 pages of nutrition standards (well, most of them anyway). While there are some wonderful changes that will take effect in fall—like at least half the grains served at lunch must be the more wholesome whole grains and all flavored milk must be non-fat—others don’t have to be implemented until 2022.
Seriously, the average school lunch contains 1,400 milligrams of sodium. The government’s own Institute of Medicine recommends that children, ages four to eight, receive no more than 1,900 milligrams in an entire day. By 2014, the USDA is requiring schools to drop the sodium in school lunch for kindergartners to fifth-graders to 1,230 milligrams or less. The agency doesn’t mandate that the sodium content be a reasonable 635 milligrams or less until 2022. Um, Kate will be a freshman—in college.
I also wish the new rules about produce had, well, more meat to them. Starting in fall, the USDA will require schools to serve a fruit and a veggie with lunch. But schools can dish out canned fruit in light syrup. According to the USDA’s National Nutritional Database, a half cup of fruit cocktail packed in water contains nine grams of sugar while the same amount packed in light syrup has eighteen grams. That’s two extra teaspoons of sugar. How is that okay?
And there’s another pet peeve of mine that the rules don’t address: The amount of time that kids have to eat lunch. My daughter’s lunch period lasts twenty minutes—and by the time kids sit down with their trays, it’s more like fifteen. If your child needs help opening milk or has her hand raised for another reason, maybe she gets ten minutes to gulp down her food. I have seriously scaled back what I pack Kate so she doesn’t feel like she has to woof it all down. Crazy as it sounds, I rely on small portions of healthy, higher-cal foods like nuts (if your lunchroom will allow), guac and whole-grain baked chips, or homemade pasta salad with olive oil and veggies. I never toss foods that take a long time to eat (like whole apples) in Kate’s lunchbox because I know she will spend twenty minutes trying to get to the seeds and not take a bite of anything else.
So, back to these USDA school lunch rules. Of course, they’re a giant step in the right direction. Parents’ advisor Elisa Zied, R.D., says: “The new rules will lead to better eating habits among school-age kids.” I don’t disagree. But, honestly, they’re still not good enough for me to sign up Kate for school lunch on most days. What’s in her pretty flower tote is a lot healthier than what is on the cafeteria line. But I’m wondering, now that the USDA has made its healthy-school-lunch push, shouldn’t nutrition-minded parents like us follow up with our kid’s school and advocate for more sweeping changes? It seems to me that the USDA has opened the door for these conversations. Now we just have to come knocking.
Karen Cicero is a contributing food and nutrition editor for Parents magazine.