Elementary schools have been providing lunches since 1946, but recently the federal government changed its guidelines for these meals. The new guidelines are meant to help children make healthier meal choices and curb childhood obesity. They also may require cafeteria managers to work harder to provide meals that meet the rules. Here are seven ways healthy lunch requirements have changed elementary schools.
- Nutrition Is Part of the Curriculum - In many schools, new lunch menus aren't the only change. Schools often adopt wellness curricula as part of the drive to reduce childhood obesity. Children may learn about good nutrition in class, have the opportunity to try out new forms of exercise such as yoga in gym class, or take a general wellness class every year. In some cases, parents are also given the opportunity to take health, nutrition and wellness classes and may be given a crash course in nutrition.
- Kids Are Exposed to Different Foods - In addition to getting rid of popular sugar-filled choices, like cookies and donuts, many schools are offering options kids may never have heard of before. For example, children may now be offered vegetarian dishes, such as tofu, or might be given sweet potato fries instead of regular french fries. This allows students the opportunity to explore foods they might not have come in contact with otherwise.
- All Children Have the Same Nutritional Opportunities - Along with healthier meals, almost all schools participate in federally funded programs that give children from poorer homes partially or fully subsidized meals. This means that all children now have the opportunity to eat salad greens, fruits and other healthy foods that may be too expensive for financially struggling households to purchase. Since good nutrition may affect a child's ability to learn, all students are provided the opportunity to eat nutritiously and have the best chance of classroom success.
- Cafeteria Managers Have to Work Harder - In the past, cafeteria managers simply ordered popular, kid-friendly foods like cheeseburgers and pizza. Now, managers have to learn and understand the guidelines and find ways to meet them while still providing kids with food they are likely to eat. This often takes more effort on the part of these workers, especially as they're becoming familiar with the new nutritional program.
- Cafeteria Budgets Are Trickier - New food choices are often more expensive than the old standards, as healthy food tends to be more expensive than processesed, fatty foods. Schools may have to allot more of their budgets to supplying their cafeterias. It's got to be difficult to watch a a larger portion of their cafeteria budget literally go to waste when kids choose to throw away the healthier fruit, vegetable and whole-grain food items, rather than eat them.
- More Students Eat Cafeteria Lunches - Forty percent of kids bring lunches from home, but parents who are worried about nutrition or don't have time to make and pack healthy lunches may send their kids with lunch money instead. School lunches are now guaranteed to be healthy, which means parents who worry about their childs' health needs find it easier to allow the school take care of lunch.
- Some Kids Don't Like Lunch - In the past, kids looked forward to buying lunch in the cafeteria. Nowadays, many children are complaining about the menus and portion sizes. They really don't like new selections and will eat less overall, as a result. Many children seem to have an especially hard time eating whole grain products, while others only want the starchier choices and throw away the fruits and veggies.
As with most federally regulated education directives, the original intentions are good. Also true of these national directives, the outcomes are often less than perfect. For the children's sake, let's hope that motivated school cafeteria teams prevail in their commitment to find the perfect balance of taste, calories and compliance!