It's the early-morning scramble, when parents and children rush around the house brushing teeth, grabbing toast and kissing each other goodbye for the day. In the midst of the madhouse, some manage to pack a lunch, and if they're fortunate, conscientious and have time, it might be a healthy one. But relying on the school to provide the midday meal may be easier for parents and healthier for children, even though kids don't always like the options landing on their trays.
There are two main issues when deciding whether a school lunch or a home-packed lunch is best for your child: nutrition and cost. For families who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, the choice seems obvious. If you don't trust that schools are offering the best nutrition, however, or you're the parent of a picky eater, packing a meal may seem like the wise choice. Still, with research suggesting it's not the healthiest choice, it's a decision that requires some thought.
The Current State of the Lunchroom
More than 5 billion school lunches were served under the federal school lunch program in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Almost 72 percent of those were offered for free or at a reduced price. But not all were welcomed with open arms. Changes have been made over the last few years in an effort to curb childhood obesity and provide more complete nutrition, but kids, parents and even school officials aren't 100 percent satisfied.
For kids, it's a matter of taste. When the requirement for more whole grains was issued in 2012, food producers scrambled to comply, often shipping out foods that just weren't palatable. This is getting better with time, but gone are the days of the doughy, fluffy white school lunch roll.
For parents, a top complaint is portion size. Mary Davis, of the Unit 4 School District in Champaign, Illinois, says the 1,500 middle school students in her district have it particularly rough. They eat the same portion sizes as elementary kids, since USDA regulations allow middle-school portions to match those of elementary schools.
"Cost wise, we need it that way," says Davis, director of food service for the school district. "If we had the money, and they could go with what the high school has, they could have the bigger portions, but we just can't afford to do that."
Further, fresh produce has a short shelf life, and cooking from scratch is both expensive and time consuming. Davis says food safety requirements for cooking a roast beef from scratch, for instance, require a six-hour cooling-down period, something her staff just doesn't have time for. So relatively few schools are able to serve up idyllic farm-fresh trays, and most still opt for cans and precooked frozen foods.
The Changes in Practice
The USDA says school lunch changes are in response to the obesity epidemic and advancements in thinking on what constitutes a healthy diet. Consequently, the agency has cut calories, lowered sodium and slashed sugar content. It also made some menu items mandatory when the guidelines were implemented in 2012.
Davis says that although the changes she's seen in her 23 years in the industry have kept the school lunch programs moving in the right direction, the changes aren't all positive. It's actually the required fruits and vegetables she's not fond of. Under the regulations, students must put at least a half cup of fruits and vegetables on their tray, regardless of their taste preferences. Even if they and the food staff know the produce won't be eaten, there is no wiggle room.
"I don't think mandatory fruits and vegetables is moving us in the right direction," Davis says. "The students who want those things will take them, and those who don't will throw it away. They'll even sometimes make a show of throwing it away. It's very, very wasteful."
Children, overweight or not, stand to benefit from the healthier options, but Davis adds that some children will skip lunch rather than eat foods they aren't accustomed to or simply don't like.
So, What's Right for Your Child?
Despite the pain points, the school lunch program isn't all bad. Children are offered healthful (though not perfect) lunch options daily, and many of those are free.
Of the 30.4 million students served during fiscal year 2014, 63 percent received free lunches and 8 percent had access to reduced prices on their lunch, according to the USDA. For them, it was far more economical to eat at school than build a comparable meal at home. According to an analysis from Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, a meal that costs $3.80 at the grocery store (including a turkey sandwich, apple and carrots with dip), costs $2.90 in the elementary school lunch line.
If you're thinking, "But my meals are healthier from home," you may want to double check. In a study that compared 750 school lunches with 560 packed lunches given to the youngest elementary school students in Virginia, researchers with Virginia Tech University found the home-packed lunches simply didn't measure up. Calories, fat and sugar content were "significantly higher," and protein, sodium, calcium and vitamin A were "significantly lower" in bagged lunches.
"The fact that we're serving whole grains, and the fact that a fruit or vegetable is always offered, that all makes it healthier," Davis says. "You know what your child is getting."
She notes that regulations requiring nutrition information to be clearly posted make school lunch a simpler option for children with special dietary needs, like those with diabetes.
"Despite the problems," Davis says, "there are many good reasons to eat at school."
The bottom line: For parents (or their children) who insist on a bagged lunch, the costs will be higher for comparable or better meals, and diligent effort is needed to ensure the contents are truly healthy.