5 Solutions for Healthy School Lunches

19 Sep, 2011

by Danielle Nierenberg, via EatDrinkBetter.com,

As summer comes to an end, school is just around the corner for children across the United States. For children enrolled in state schools, this typically means the return of unhealthy lunches that are best described as fast food: hamburgers, chicken nuggets, fried snacks, and sugary soft drinks. Yet school lunch programs can play a key role in reinforcing healthy eating behaviors by integrating such measures as school gardens, nutrition education, locally sourced organic food, and efforts that affirm the value of mealtimes.

Childhood obesity is a major problem in North America, where annual obesity rates have seen significant gains in recent decades. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of U.S. children and adolescents aged 2–19 are obese, nearly triple the share in 1980. Many studies document the connection between a school’s food environment and dietary behaviors in children. As anyone who grew up in the U.S. public school system can attest, lunches served in the country are highly processed and high in sodium, sugar, and fat.

Initiatives that connect schoolchildren to fresh, healthy foods and that encourage healthy eating habits from a young age are critical to ending the obesity endemic. One example is the U.S.-based 30 Project, which brings together key organizations and activists working on hunger, obesity, and agriculture to talk about their visions for the food system over the next 30 years. The effort is exploring long-term solutions to address obesity and improve the food system by ensuring that everyone has easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, among other goals.

With children preparing to begin the school year, Nourishing the Planet offers five solutions for schools to encourage healthy eating.

1. Connect Local Farmers to Schools

Providing locally sourced foods in school cafeterias improves diets and strengthens local economies. The U.S. state of Vermont is a leader in the nationwide Farm to School movement, which integrates food and nutrition education into classroom curricula and serves local foods in school cafeterias. Over the past decade, 60 percent of Vermont schools have joined the effort, forming a statewide network aided by the state’s Agency of Agriculture, Department of Health, and Department of Education. Children benefit from farm-fresh foods for breakfast and lunch, and local farmers expand their business into a market worth over $40 million. Urban areas across the United States, from New York to Los Angeles, are also participating in this growing movement.

2. Savor Mealtimes

Emphasizing the importance of mealtimes teaches children to appreciate the value and taste of good food. France, which has one of the lowest rates of childhood obesity in Europe, takes lunch very seriously. School lunches are well funded, and every part of the meal is prepared on school grounds in professional-grade kitchens—a stark contrast to the heat-and-serve kitchens in U.S. schools. Kids from preschool to high school are served four- to five-course meals and are encouraged to take time eating and socializing with friends. At some schools, detailed menus even suggest what parents should serve their children for dinner. Soft drink and snack machines are banned from school premises.

3. Implement School Gardens

School gardens provide hands-on opportunities for children to cultivate and prepare organic produce. In the United States, REAL School Gardens creates learning gardens in elementary schools in high-poverty areas of north Texas. The organization has found that the school gardens not only nurture healthy lifestyles and environmental stewardship, but can also improve academic achievement through active participation. REAL School Gardens supports 81 schools, providing daily access to nature for more than 45,000 children and 2,700 educators.

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