The Department of Agriculture (USDA), bolstered by Obama signing the Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, authored initiatives earlier this year to create a more nutritious school lunch for the nation's public school population -- namely, more fruits and vegetables, less sodium and potatoes, and the addition of more whole grains. However, Congress recently passed a bill that strikes down all of these ideas.
The USDA recommended that in order for tomato sauce to count as a vegetable, the serving size should be 1/2 cup -- no less. However, the appropriations bill that Congress passed will ensure that the standard that is used today, a tablespoon or so, will continue to count as a serving of vegetables.
Other provisions in the bill knocked out the USDA's recommendation that starchy foods, such as potatoes, be served less often and the sodium content of food be minimized.
However, lobbyists for the American Frozen Food Institute worked hard to convince Congress otherwise, and the American public may be reminded of the Reagan administration's silly attempt to classify ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables in the 1980s. Nutritionists, dieticians and parents went up in arms and the measure was reconsidered (but a budget was subsequently passed that knocked $1 billion from the nation's school lunch program that year).
The government is involved so closely in school lunches because those that are subsidized by the federal government (such as free or reduced lunches) must contain a minimum quantity of vegetables.
"Once again, kids in poverty are the ones who lose."
Who loses out, then, if the lunches are nutritionally subpar? Erika, mother of one school-aged child, is sufficiently outraged by the situation. "It makes me mad that the kids who have to eat school lunch are the kids whose parents make less money. Because those of us who make more money (and don't get free/reduced lunch) have the ability, time or money to pack good lunches, so once again, kids in poverty are the ones who lose."
Tara, from Missouri, agrees. "I love my son too much to allow him to eat school lunch. Yes, they have added whole grains, but they still offer pink milk, rosy applesauce, non-organic fruits that are covered with sugar and meat 'surprise.'"
"The lunches are downright gross."
Brigetta, mother of two teen sons and a toddler girl, shared that she feels the nutrition in the lunches definitely leaves a lot to be desired. "I have packed my boys' lunches since kindergarten. I will continue until they go to college. The lunches are downright gross."
The other side of the coin
Mother and grandmother Lisa has another view to share. "As one who has actually worked in school food service," she said, "We want to serve healthy, nutritious meals, but kids these days opt to order off campus if it's not something they like. So many of them have been raised on fast foods at home that we have to work hard to balance nutrition with acceptance by the students."
The question may be a moot one after all, as Kay, mother of one, reminds us: "Botanically, the tomato is a fruit."
How do you feel about the quality of school lunches? And does tomato sauce on pizza count as a veggie?!
More on childhood nutrition
Information on basic nutritional needs for children
Teaching kids healthy portion sizes and nutrition
Enhance children's activity and nutrition