All federally funded schools need to meet certain guidelines when offering lunches to their students. These lunches need to contain around a third of the daily recommended values for nutrients, but unfortunately these lunches also tend to contain plenty of salt, fat, and calories. Deep fried and high fat foods, potatoes, milk, ketchup, bread, and high-sodium condiments are offered to elementary school students every day and create a negative impact on their health and development.

What Cause Unhealthy School Lunches?

1. Unregulated Suppliers

Lunch distribution is managed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA),which is in charge of supporting nutritional programs for over 94,000 schools nationwide. In the Child Nutrition Commodity Program, USDA offers cash compensation for agriculture companies that supply foods to schools.

Most of the foods these companies purchase for schools, however, are animal products such as meats and cheeses. Over 50 percent of all of the foods for schools nationwide are animal-based and need to be processed before they are sent to the schools. The process of preparing these foods adds a great deal of sodium, sugar, and fat. All of these additions are unregulated.

2. Legal Loopholes

The regulation for prepared foods is not particularly solid. There are minimum requirements for the amount of calories or nutrients that a food product for a school may contain, but there are no maximums for these items. There are also no limits or regulations on how foods are prepared, meaning fried foods like French fries are considered acceptable according to the health standards for children. There have been a lot of complaints because this means items like battered, deep fried vegetables are considered acceptable to meet nutritional standards.

3. Emphasis on Nutrients, Rather Than Food

Focusing on the nutrients that are in a food product rather than looking at the impact of the food as a whole causes schools to focus on looking for cheap ways to meet the minimum guidelines instead of focusing on finding quality items to feed their students. Experts in sustainable farming would rather see the focus to shift to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables rather than specific nutrients that can simply be added to otherwise unhealthy foods.

4. The Food Pyramid

The food pyramid was designed with a lot of input from special interest groups, such as the beef industry that did not want its products removed from the school lunches. The dairy industry is also heavily represented on the food pyramid as being a solid source of calcium, in spite of the fact that these foods are very fatty and tend to negatively impact people with lactose issues. In spite of these shortcomings, the food pyramid is still widely used as a standard for what Americans should be eating. There have been some attempts to redesign the food pyramid to improve this problem, but several lobbying organizations always get involved in the process, which limits the influence of these efforts.

What Is the Results of Unhealthy School Lunches?

1. Nutrient Deficiency

Schools must offer dairy, grains, fruits, and vegetables, but there are no programs to make sure that children are eating them. In many cases, children will skip the healthy choices in favor of added desserts or fried sides. This causes children to miss out on essential antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that they need to be healthy.

2. Obesity

Many foods offered in cafeterias are high in calories and fat, which will contribute to weight gain. In addition to the balanced meals, there are several unhealthy options available a la carte, which children will add to their meals, further adding to the calories they are consuming each day.

3. Other Diseases

Children that eat a lot of fat and are struggling with their weight are at a higher risk for diseases like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, depression, or diabetes. Both school lunches and the a la carte offered by schools increase this risk. Children that are allowed to pick all of their lunch options at school instead of being offered a standard meal are at a higher risk for this problem.

4. Bad Performance at School

Unhealthy foods usually lack the nutrients that children need to stay energized and focus throughout the rest of the day. Children that don't get the nutrients their bodies need will often have decreased cognitive abilities and performance in the classroom.These children are also at a higher risk for disease, which means they will miss classes.

What Can Be Done to Avoid Unhealthy School Lunches?

  • Think About Realistic Goals. It would be ideal for schools to serve organic options, but this is not feasible in our current climate. Instead of thinking about goals that cannot be achieved, ask for goals that schools could meet like adding whole grains, fresh fruit, and vegetables to the menu.
  • Ban Junk Foods. Ask that your schools don't sell the junk foods a la carte, which add to the obesity problem. Studies have shown that this does not offer additional revenue for the school, so there should be no problem cutting these options.
  • Offer Tastings. Children love to taste foods, so holding an event where you can expose kids to new healthy foods could get them enthused about eating healthy options at lunch. Encourage your school to talk about nutrition in class, perhaps having the kids taste foods that are relevant to the lesson plan.
  • Eat After Recess. Studies have shown that children who are allowed to take recess before they eat lunch consume more nutrients and food than those who go to play after lunch.
  • Eat in the Cafeteria. If parents take the time to eat in their child's cafeteria, they will be more aware of what options are available and what the ambiance is like here. This will make it easier to understand where nutrition problems are stemming from and what might help change them.
  • Start a Schoolyard Garden. Putting a garden on the school property will help students learn about where their foods come from and allow them to learn more about healthy foods. This can also get teachers and students interested in edible education.
  • Push for Legislative Change. Think about what changes in legislation would help the problem, contact your representatives, and voice your opinion. Get more parents involved to make your message stronger and get more attention for your cause.

Watch the video to learn how students react to the healthy lunch meal guidelines: