Friday, June 18, 2010

Sugar and School Lunch

School lunch is a hot topic these days. Whether it is Jaime Oliver or Michelle Obama, everyone seems the be growing aware of the swill that has been served to our children for decades.

I attended public schools for elementary, junior high and high school. I ate school lunch at my elementary school virtually every day for 6 years. I remember that lunch cost 95cents. You could buy ice cream for 40 cents, so I would try to keep up with all my leftover nickels for two weeks to get an ice cream bar. I remember the lunch room distinctly. The lunch ladies were very friendly. I remember there were some things I liked (tacos) and some things I didn't like (hot ham sandwiches) and I remember the square pizza tasting weird (it was actually rectangle pizza, I am fussy about my shapes!). I still ate it though. I don't remember there being a lot of choice. I am sure there were some veggies beyond potato flakes. There were virtually no raw vegetables, like carrot sticks. I remember lunch being hot every day. We did get whole fruit sometimes if I remember correctly. We were only served lunch, not breakfast.

In the summer I went to camp at a lovely place that functioned as a private school during the year. This private school had a huge estate of land, a pool, a lake with canoes, soccer field, a baseball field, a full playground, woods. The place was enormous! The food that was served there I noticed to be much better than what I got during my school year. The offering was simpler most of the time, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, pasta with meat sauce. There were lots of whole fruits available, and raw veggies a lot too. There might have been salads too. I can't quite remember.

When I moved on to junior high school and high school I never ate lunch at school even once. My mother never packed a lunch for me after that, it became my responsibility to pack my own lunch when I turned 12. School lunch was really gross at my high school. There was always a hot offering, but they served an alternate of hamburgers and fries or pizza virtually EVERY DAY. Now I was just learning to eat properly myself, so there were days that all I packed for myself was cheese and crackers (not that healthy). But when your lunch period is at 10:45am, a full meal almost doesn't matter. I had eaten breakfast four hours earlier and I usually ate again when I got home.

For the last couple of months I have been follow a great blog, Fed Up With School Lunch. An anonymous teacher by the pseudonym of Mrs Q has been eating school lunch every day since January and has been documenting the offering, what it tasted like, how she feels afterward and also how much waste is produced every day. It is a fascinating blog and the daily debate among followers is very interesting. She has guest bloggers from time to time. And last week she had a piece written by Ed Bruske of The Slow Cook and Better D.C. School Food. One thing he said really took my breath away. On a trip to his daughter's school, he had seen the kitchen where meals were being prepared. The breakfasts the children were eating were swimming in sugar. Candy frosted cereals, flavored milk, orange juice and POP TARTS!! The average kid was wolfing down 50-60 grams of sugar, or around 15 teaspoons! That is more than a quarter of a cup of sugar. Would you let your kid put a quarter of a cup of sugar on his first meal of the day?

Bruske's posting was what got me thinking about sugar in the first place. I mentioned earlier in the week that the Sugar Association had successfully lobbied the USDA to remove all mention of added sugars in their food pyramid literature? Well that directly translates to the National School Lunch Program. To date not one piece of legislation has successfully regulated the amount of sugar in school lunch. Now the American Heart Association came out last year with sugar limits for adults (no more than 5 teaspoons for a moderately active adult woman). But their recommendations failed to offer advise for children. Unfortunate, but not shocking either.

Several school systems and food service companies who cater school lunches have thrown their hands in the air saying "this is what the kids want to eat, we can make other food but how do we get the kids to eat it rather than throw it away?" Or one of my personal favorites "flavored milks are way better than sodas in the nutrition department, if we stop serving flavored milks the kids might not drink milk at all!" Well, I looked it up. Wisconsin Dairy Farmers have a very easy to use website that the shows the consumption of fluid milk and milk products since 1960. The data is the most complete between 1980 and today. Whole milk consumption has, as you would expect, gone down dramatically. Lowfat milk consumption has risen. Flavored milks were barely on the radar in 1960 and even today, although their consumption has more than doubled since 1980, they are only 7% of the total. What I think is interesting is that consumption of cream products(whipping cream and half and half and sour cream) have more than doubled since 1980. So although we are drinking more low fat milk, we are still eating the fat that has been taken out of our milk. We are just eating it in prepared foods now.

There is no clear evidence that kids won't drink regular milk if they are not offered flavored milk. This is just one more sales tactic of food companies to protect a business that they have carved out for themselves. But without proper legislation the sugar problem will never go away.

The newest Child Nutrition Act, which is up for review right now, also dos not discuss setting caps on the amount of sugar that children are served during the school day. In some schools now the estimate is that 44% of a child's school lunch calories are coming from solid fats and sugars. Remember what I said earlier this week, the WHO quietly recommends getting no more than 10% of your calories from sugar. And while they didn't stipulate different percentages for adults and children, I think this is a good gauge. Children's nutrient requirements per pound are enormous when compared with adults. Staggering physical changes and growth take place during the formative years. There is only so much room for food in a child's tummy, and I think that food really should be filled with the proper nutrients, vitamins and good things that will foster proper growth.

I could go on forever, and i probably will. The debate is on in many places. Follow the links I have provided to learn more.

I am really happy to say that after I wrote this, but before I published it, I read on Ed Bruske's blog the DC schools will be banning strawberry, chocolate and other flavored milks starting with the next school year! They will also be banning sugary cereals. Hooray! I love that there is so much dialogue out there, but what I really love is action!

Bruske, Ed. Sweet and Low. Grist, A Beacon in the Smog. 19 April, 2010.

US Fluid Milk Product Sales-1960-2007. Wisconsin Dairy. 16 June, 2010.

Nestle, Marion. Sugary school meals hit lobbyists' sweet spot. 2 May, 2010.

Main, Emily. Chocolate Milk Debate Rages On. 30 Nov, 2009


  1. our school lunches really were horrible. i remember that they lady who made the wheat rolls was there 2 days a week. that was the only time i ever even went in that cafeteria.

  2. Have you checked out Chez Panisse's and the Edible Schoolyard? It's a foundation that is revolutionizing school lunches through education and hands on work in the garden. They've been at it long before Jaime Oliver took the stage.