My high school “attempted” to improve the nutritional value of school lunches by introducing “fry-less Fridays.” Rather than serving greasy French fries, my school introduced the much healthier alternative of tater tots.
Therefore, it came as no surprise when researchers at the University of Michigan published a study in December’s American Heart Journal stating that sixth graders that regularly had the school lunch were 29 percent more likely to be obese than those who bought lunch from home.
The study also found that spending two or more hours a day watching television or playing video games also increased the risk of obesity, but by only 19 percent.
As studies suggest that the number of obese children in the US has tripled in the past 20 years, more demand needs to be placed on curbing obesity rates. School lunch reform has always been on the radar for health activists. Therefore, what is really standing in the way of revamping the whole system?
The first obstacle: money. Economically, unhealthier options are cheaper options. Not only are the ingredients less expensive than healthy fruits and vegetables, it requires much less culinary skill to fry chicken nuggets and melt a tub of American cheese (+ Tostitos tortilla chips = nachos). Therefore, it would be more expensive to find or train workers that can make healthy options that taste good.
The second obstacle: children. We are neurologically wired to enjoy sugary, fatty, and high calorie foods. Even adults find it challenging to choose healthier options. So, children are extremely resistant to school lunch reform. (Even the shift to tater tots in my high school, the questionably healthier choice, triggered outcry in my high school.)
Perhaps the unhappiness of school children alone would not be enough for the administration to bring back unhealthy options. But, this unhappiness ties into the first obstacle: money. If kids are unhappy with lunch choices, then they will just not buy school lunch. While some students are part of the federal free or reduced school lunch program, other students will simply find food elsewhere. The money from school lunches, however, is required to sustain the food program. Sometimes the school can even profit from cafeteria revenues, and that money can be used for other programs.
Yet, the staggering statistical difference between obese and non-obese children consuming school lunches (29%) should only place more pressure on school lunch reform. While the two obstacles of money and children may seem great, the growth of child obesity is a far more threatening problem.