On School Lunches…

Another school year is upon us, and that means that children are once again subjected to the abuse that is the federally-guided school lunch program.

We decided to allow F one school lunch a week as a treat. After the first school lunch, we’ve put an all-out moratorium on it. You see, F doesn’t react well to high-fructose corn syrup. Her behaviour goes bonkers within a few hours, and it takes her a couple of days to recover, culminating in an ugly, whiny mess of being unable to deal with anyone or anything. F’s lunch on friday consisted of hot dogs (contain HFCS), Cheetos (HFCS), and fruit snacks (HFCS). The whole weekend was downright ugly. Naturally, I’m taking an interest in what they’re serving the kids at school, and what I’m seeing isn’t pretty.

I’ve asked the school district for ingredient statements on their menu, but haven’t heard anything yet.

On Tuesday, she turned 7, and we told her she could buy her lunch (so she wouldn’t pack one) and the rest of the family was going to surprise her with Chick-Fil-A as a treat.

At lunch, I looked around me at what all the other second-graders were eating. It was a sea of brown (although I’ll admit, there wasn’t a whole lot of color in our own lunch, but we eat a lot of fresh veggies at home).

Tuesday’s lunch menu at school was:

  • Whole Wheat Pasta with Marinara Sauce & a “Bosco Stick”
  • Grilled Cheese Sandwich
  • Mini Corn Dogs
  • Bagel with [flavored] cream cheese
  • [Flavored] Yogurt with poppyseed muffin
  • Peanut Butter & Jelly (actually, an Uncrustable)


  • Steamed Edamame
  • Steamed Peas & Carrots
  • Chilled Fruit Cocktail

Beverage options are:

  • Milk (white, chocolate, strawberry)
  • Juice (Orange, Grape, Apple, Fruit blend)

According to the school program, Every lunch “Full Meal” includes students’ choice of one entrée and self-serve offering bar including menued sides PLUS a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables with two drink choices.

Notice what the vegetables are: self-server offering bar. Federal guidelines mandate a certain amount of vegetables in the school lunch, but for the kids, it’s strictly optional. And they’re soggy, mushy, and have had the life cooked out of them. The number of trays containing fruit or vegetables could be counted on a single hand, and much of that ended up in the trash. Much of the pasta was devoid of sauce. The steam trays containing the vegetables were virtually untouched (and students eat in grade order, approximately 80-100 students per grade)

So, let’s break this down.

Whole wheat pasta. pretty benign stuff, but nutritionally pretty vapid. Lotta carbs, not a lot else. It may be whole wheat, but it’s still pasta.

Bosco Stick. What the heck is that? It’s some sort of breadstick with cheese in the middle. One stick contains 210 calories, a third of which are from fat.. Key indredients: Sugar and partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, and vegetable glycerides. Yummy.

Grilled Cheese. ‘Nuff said. Hunk of bread surrounding pseudo-cheese and fried on the griddle.

Mini Corn Dogs. Hot dogs, ergo, HFCS.Wrapped in corn batter. An Iowa farmer’s dream.

Bagel w/ Cream Cheese. The cream cheese was strawberry flavored and contains sugar. Better than even chance that the bagel contains HFCS as well.

Yogurt w/ Poppyseed muffin. Again with the loads of sugar.

Peanut Butter & Jelly. The school can’t even be bothered to make the simplest of sandwiches, they have to use the prefabricated abomination that is the Uncrustable. 38 ingredients, including HFCS (in both the “bread” and the jelly), dextrose, and palm oil, not to mention a whole boatload of preservatives.

Edamame. Pure soy (although to its credit, pretty much unadulterated)

Fruit Cocktail. Let’s take fruit, and then pickle it in sugar water. Brilliant.

Flavored milk (chocolate or strawberry). 30 grams of sugar in a single serving, and the kids usually take two. By comparison, the same amount of Coke contains a mere 26g of sugar. In our school, it’s real sugar, but HFCS is common. 12g of those sugars are from the milk itself.

White Milk. I didn’t see a single kid with this. Otherwise, pretty healthy stuff.

Juice. A serving of this contains 28 grams of sugars, virtually all of it fructose, with no fiber to buffer it (except perhaps in the orange juice)

So, we have a menu loaded with sugars and not-so-complex carbohydrates. The second-graders arrive at 11:30. By 11:45, they’re being herded outside, where they have 10 minutes to run off all that sugar. They technically have the option to stay and finish their meal, but there’s intense pressure from both their peers and from the lunchroom staff for them to get out and play. Net result is that the amount of waste is mind-boggling.

In 15 minutes, these kids will practically inhale well over 100 grams of sugars and starches. They will then have 10 minutes to run it off before it’s even had a chance to hit their system, followed by over three hours in the classroom, punctuated by 15 minutes of recess in the middle. And they wonder why kids get fat and inattentive. Even our school’s nurse cringes at the school’s lunches.

And this is a pretty typical day on the menu. The district swears they’re abiding by federal guidelines. The common thing on this menu is that it’s virtually all made from four of the top five USDA-subsidized crops: wheat, corn, soy, cotton (Tobacco is the 5th).

I think the USDA overseeing the school lunch program (and overall nutritional policy) is not only a massive conflict of interest, but a primary cause behind the obesity epidemic. You can’t have the people setting production policy and subsidies be the same ones overseeing policy related to its consumption. When ketchup (which contains a lot of HFCS) is considered a “vegetable”, there’s a problem.

If the school lunch program and nutrition policy were overseen by health officials (like DHHS or the Surgeon General), I think we’d be a lot better off.

5 Comments On “On School Lunches…”

  1. To be totally fair, they did have fresh strawberries in the offering, as I saw them on one kid’s tray. They also didn’t consume that many grams of sugar, simply because there was no time! A lot of it went into the trash.

    I said something to her teacher about the 15 minutes they have to eat not being enough, and her response was, “Well, by then they’ve eaten what they’ll eat anyway. Any longer than that and they just start getting into trouble.” I think I disagree. Also, why not let kids out when they’re done instead of ushering them all out at once? I know that’s what we did when I was in elementary school.


  2. Chick-Fil-A? Healthier than whole wheat pasta, edamame, & 100% fruit juice?? I think not.

    Also, fructose is NOT the same as HFCS. If you’re going to dis on fructose, then say goodbye to fresh apples, strawberries, watermelons, and much, much more.


    • Shannon, I never claimed CFA was any healthier – in this case, it was a special treat. Most of the kids were eating plain noodles, a bosco stick, and 2 containers of sugar milk or fruit juice.

      You’re correct, fructose is not the same as HFCS. In fact, the 42% of HFCS that is glucose can easily be metabolized by all cells for a quick energy hit. The fructose has to go to the liver for processing. HFCS has one redeeming quality – it’s NOT pure fructose.

      However, in fresh fruit, fructose is accompanied by fiber and the fruit pulp that buffers absorption and metabolism of that fructose by the liver. In clear fruit juices (especially apple and grape – which are also used in concentrated form as sweeteners in juice blends in order to maintain “100% fruit juice”), the fiber and pulp have been filtered out, and it’s just as bad for you as highly processed HFCS (if not worse due to higher concentrations), since it hits the liver all at once.

      Part of the problem is that the juice industry, which is largely controlled by Pepsi (Tropicana) and Coca-Cola (Minute Maid), has been very successful in marketing fruit juice to parents as a supposedly healthy alternative to soda (and thus preserving profits). What ends up happening is that the excess consumption of soda gets shifted over to juice, and the kids are taking in just as many sugar calories as before, when in fact children should be drinking no more than a small glass of any calorie-containing beverage per day. Water isn’t even offered as a beverage option at F’s school cafeteria.


  3. I’m a Food Service Director in a mid-sized district in Kansas. I would encourage you to share any ideas you have with the FSD in your school district. It would be awesome to have parents help me come up with ideas for bringing in healthier foods, that the kids will eat, to my district.

    Shoot, share your ideas with me, and I’ll use them in my kitchens! Believe me, most Food Service Directors do not delight in putting highly processed foods on the menus. We are constantly looking for new ideas that fit within our ever-shrinking budgets…and sadly, that has had to become the bottom line for most schools.


    • Julie, thanks for your feedback. I don’t envy the position you guys are put in by the state and federal governments, constantly cutting funding that leaves you very little in the way of options.

      And it’s not like Kansas is underfunding schools. The district bean counters just don’t seem to want to put a priority on food, and this seems to be a problem nationally. My post referred to an elementary school in one of the largest and well-funded districts in Kansas. If they can’t get nutrition funding right, I can’t imagine how the smaller districts can hope to do it. Even so, a large part of it is tied to the USDA’s nutrition policy.

      Funny thing is, if you treated something like school bus maintenance with the same budgetary disdain that they treat nutrition, there’d be hell to pay.


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