What’s in Your Child’s School Lunch? The unsavory nutrition facts on cafeteria food

Our government's own studies have shown that American schools are flunking lunch. The kids who DON'T buy lunch at school are healthier - and they perform better academically.

• The average dollar amount allotted for food cost per school lunch nationwide is barely $1, and 25 cents of that is spent on milk.

• The beef and poultry used in schools are held to lower standards than the standards used in fast-food chains like McDonald's.

• Many schools no longer have access to free drinking water.

Why should you care about school food?

• The average American child eats less than one serving of fruit a day and anywhere from 30 to 156 pounds of sugar per year (depending upon which statistics you believe).

• Twelve percent of American children currently have type 2 ("adult-onset") diabetes, and rates are increasing annually. The CDC reports that one in three children born in 2000 (30 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls) will develop type 2 diabetes.

• One quarter of children age five to ten have elevated blood cholesterol or high blood pressure; both are early warning signs of heart disease.

• One in four children take prescription medication daily for chronic illness.

• American girls are beginning puberty one to two years earlier than they were a generation ago.

• At least 30 percent of the calories in the average child's diet come from sweets, soda, salty snacks, and fast food.

Related: 10 healthy lunchbox ideas for school

As I write this, my youngest child is busy packing for her freshman year of college. My husband and I will soon be empty-nesters, and I now find myself reminiscing about those early days of parenthood: the freaky feeling of being totally responsible for the well-being of a tiny helpless baby human, and the shock of realizing that we couldn't clock out of the job when we wanted a break. As most of us do, we got with the program, and I became adept at multi-tasking, juggling kids, work, family, friends and finances. Yet even today as my daughter worries about compatibility with her new roommate, I worry about the quality of the food she will eat at the dining hall on campus.

I used to think my kids were exempt from junk food culture because we fed them well at home and sent them to school with a lovingly prepared packed lunch. It wasn't until I visited my daughter's middle school cafeteria and learned that she had been purchasing all manner of junk on a daily basis that I realized that the school was in fact undermining all the good food lessons we had taught her at home.

The world of "kid food" is fraught with hidden dangers. Our children are exposed to a daily to a barrage of abysmal choices along with advertising that makes those choices sound healthy and delicious. Whether your child is 18 months or 18 years old, the food she or he eats today will have a lifelong impact (refer to facts above) - so it's never too soon or too late to start paying attention. I wrote the book LUNCH WARS: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children's Health for parents and others who want to know how to advocate on behalf of their own kids as well as this entire generation of children.

You might think that school food, never reputed to be delicious, is at least healthy food - especially with new regulations in effect this year and all the well-placed efforts of First Lady Michelle Obama and her Let's Move campaign. The sad reality is that junk food marketing and advertising has penetrated the cinderblock and brick of the typical American school, and it's now up to parents and concerned school staff to tackle the issue of school food as they've tackled issues of bullying, class size, playground safety, faulty ventilation, mold, kids with weapons and corporeal punishment. While federal school food regulations offer minimum standards, it's up to individuals - us - and our local communities and school districts to define and create a safe and healthy school food environment. Advocacy begins at the grass roots, and that's also where we can have the greatest impact.

Lunch Wars is filled with examples of school districts both large and small that have made changes to their school meal programs, as well as incorporated real food into the curriculum. These communities have created school food systems that are more sustainable, delicious and nutritious. Farm to school programs, salad bars stocked with local and organic produce, recycling, composting, edible school gardens, cooking classes and washable utensils are some of the components of these new programs. Of course each school district and each story is unique, but I was able to find some common threads, action plans and tips that generate great results:

Related: Food Fight! One mom's crusade to start a school lunch revolution

1. Visit the lunchroom. Look beyond the menu. Taste the food. Ask for a list of ingredients in everything. You don't need a nutrition degree to know whether the food is real or junk. If you can't pronounce it, you probably don't want your kid to eat it.

2. Don't go it alone. Find out if there's a wellness committee, nutrition committee, food advisory committee or something similar in your town or school district.Speak with a committee member, learn what they've already done or plan to do. Join or form your own group.

3. Before you approach the administration, learn how the system works - locally and federally. There are chapters in the book about policy and regulations - just the stuff you need to know, and you can learn more by making friends with your school's food service director.

4. Read your local wellness policy and compare it to the examples in the book. Policy and practice go hand in hand, so start in either place, but don't let one get in the way of the other. Do what you can when you can and work with others who have complimentary skills.

5. Help find better alternatives before banning the bad stuff. Encourage your district to hire a sustainable food systems consultant or a chef if possible. Appeal to parent-teacher organizations to help raise funds for these costs and/or the cost of upgrading kitchen facilities.

6. Start small or start big, but start with changes that have a good chance for success and grow from there. Get involved where you find your passion. Start or volunteer in a school garden, teach kids how to make real fruit smoothies, chaperone a trip to a grocery store, a farm or restaurant, help connect farmers with the food service director, work with the cafeteria staff to develop recipes using fresh ingredients and cooking from scratch.

7. Publicize your successes loud and often - bragging will attract more people to your cause and help you gain momentum and good will. Don't burn out and don't give up! For the sake of your kids, do what you can and stick with it for the long haul.

- by Amy Kalafa

To watch Amy's exclusive interview with Tim Cipriani (aka "the local food dude") to find out how he revolutionized the New Haven cafeteria system, visit Babble!


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