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Aaron Dyer; food styling: Jessie Damuck

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2,RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RI.6-8.5, RI.6-8.7, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.2, SL.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.8

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.1, Civ.3, Civ.11, Civ.12, Eco.1, His.1, His.3, His.14

NCSS: Individuals, groups, and institutions; Culture; Civic ideals and practices

Enjoy this free article courtesy of Junior Scholastic, the Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

JS 360°

Health & Government 

Food Fight!

The government recently stirred up controversy by changing school lunch requirements. It’s not the first time Americans have been up in arms over what’s on students’ trays. Why is the ongoing debate over cafeteria choices so heated—and how will the new rules affect you? 

As You Read, Think About: Is it the government’s responsibility to help Americans live healthfully?

Turkey wrap or chicken tenders? Baby carrots or salad? You probably spend just moments selecting your lunch each day at school. But believe it or not, each option has already been given hundreds of hours of consideration. Everyone from your cafeteria staff to the U.S. Congress has analyzed and debated even the smallest details of school lunch menus—right down to that packet of ketchup you just squeezed onto your cheeseburger.

Why? The federal government has been in charge of public school lunches for more than 70 years, making sure American kids get enough to eat at school. It sets nutritional standards for exactly what and how much a school can dish out per meal, including limits on calories, fat, and sodium.

Turkey wrap or chicken tenders? Baby carrots or salad? You probably spend just moments choosing your lunch each day at school. But believe it or not, each option has already been given a lot of thought. Everyone from your cafeteria staff to the U.S. Congress has analyzed and debated even the smallest details of school lunch menus. That includes that packet of ketchup you just squeezed onto your cheeseburger.

Why? The federal government has been in charge of public school lunches for more than 70 years. It makes sure American kids get enough to eat at school. It sets nutritional standards for exactly what and how much a school can serve per meal. This includes limits on calories, fat, and sodium.

4,850,762,069

The total number of school lunches served in 2018 nationwide 

SOURCE: USDA Food and Nutrition Service

The rules affect nearly 100,000 schools and 30 million students nationwide. So whether you’re having a crispy fish sandwich in Rhode Island or green chile chicken tamales in Texas, your full meal is roughly the same in terms of calories and nutrition. 

The guidelines are getting a remix this year, however. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is easing some requirements. For example, cafeterias can now serve bread and pasta made from white flour instead of only whole-grain bread and pasta. They also can offer 1 percent chocolate milk. Before, flavored milk had to be fat-free. 

Why are school lunch rules changing, and what will those changes mean for you and your friends—besides possibly a new spin on cafeteria mac and cheese? It all depends on who you ask.

The rules affect nearly 100,000 schools and 30 million students nationwide. So whether you are having a crispy fish sandwich in Rhode Island or green chile chicken tamales in Texas, your full meal is about the same in terms of calories and nutrition.

But the guidelines are getting a remix this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is easing some requirements. Cafeterias can now serve bread and pasta made from white flour instead of only whole-grain bread and pasta. They also can offer 1 percent chocolate milk. Before, flavored milk had to be fat-free.

Why are school lunch rules changing? What will those changes mean for you and your friends, besides a possible new spin on cafeteria mac and cheese? It all depends on who you ask.

Shifting Diets 

As U.S. culture has evolved, so have school lunches. In the 1940s, students ate liver loaf and green beans. By the 1990s, cafeterias had McDonald’s burgers and fries. 

In 2010, health experts’ warnings about the nation’s growing obesity problem spurred the government to act. That year, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. That law required schools to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein (such as fish and skinless chicken) while cutting down on sodium. 

At first, students complained about the new options. But researchers say they adapted quickly. One study found that after the law went into effect in 2012, middle schoolers began choosing more fruit, eating more of their vegetables, and finishing more of their lunches overall. 

U.S. culture has evolved. At the same time, so have school lunches. In the 1940s, students ate liver loaf and green beans. By the 1990s, cafeterias had McDonald’s burgers and fries.

In 2010, health experts’ warnings about the nation’s growing obesity problem spurred the government to act. That year, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. That law required schools to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein (such as fish and skinless chicken). It also required schools to cut down on sodium.

At first, students complained about the new options. But researchers say they adapted quickly. One study found that after the law went into effect in 2012, middle schoolers began to choose more fruit and eat more of their vegetables. They also were finishing more of their lunches.

Behind the Changes 

Still, cafeterias continued to struggle with a decades-long problem: students throwing away food. Studies dating from as far back as the 1970s show that kids regularly trash more than 30 percent of their school lunches. Today, one school district in South Dakota, for example, reports that its students toss 65 percent of their fruits and vegetables. That’s a big reason the government decided to once again tweak the guidelines, according to Sonny Perdue, the secretary of the Department of Agriculture. Officials hope the new rules will appeal more to kids’ taste buds—and cut down on food waste. 

The changes are also intended to address another trend that has troubled some health experts: a decline in how much milk kids drink. As U.S. milk consumption has decreased over time, fewer students are drinking milk at school. Health experts say milk is a good source of protein and calcium, nutrients that kids need for healthy development. The government is banking on 1 percent chocolate milk being more popular than nonfat milk—and, therefore, ending up on more lunch trays. 

Making sure students get the most out of lunch is the goal, Perdue has said. “If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted,” he stated in 2017, announcing his plans for the school lunch menu changes. 

But cafeterias still struggle with a decades-long problem: students throwing away food. Studies dating from as far back as the 1970s show that kids regularly trash more than 30 percent of their school lunches. Today, one school district in South Dakota reports that its students toss 65 percent of their fruits and vegetables. That is a big reason the government decided to once again tweak the guidelines, according to Sonny Perdue. He is the secretary of the Department of Agriculture. Officials hope the new rules will appeal more to kids’ taste buds and cut down on food waste.

The changes are also meant to address another trend that has troubled some health experts. Kids are drinking less milk. As U.S. milk consumption has gone down over time, fewer students are drinking milk at school. Health experts say milk is a good source of protein and calcium. Kids need those nutrients for healthy growth. The government is hoping that 1 percent chocolate milk will be more popular than nonfat milk. That way, milk would end up on more lunch trays.

Making sure students get the most out of lunch is the goal, Perdue has said. “If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted,” he said in 2017. He was announcing his plans for the school lunch menu changes.

Brain Food 

After all, making sure kids get enough to eat was one of the key reasons the government got involved in school lunch (see "The Long, Strange History of U.S. School Lunch," above). During World War I (1914-18) and World War II (1939-1945), malnourishment limited the number of eligible soldiers.

U.S. leaders wanted to make sure that American kids grew up healthy in case they were needed in the military in the future. So in 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act, which guaranteed that the federal government would help pay for public school meals. The law ensured that students in need would get at least one full meal a day. Today, the government still provides free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch for millions of students across the country. Over the years, the program has been expanded (see circle graphs, below).

The meals haven’t just helped students’ bodies—they’ve also helped their brains. Students who eat nutritious food show improvements in concentration, thinking skills, and energy. They also tend to behave better in class. (Students who eat fast food for lunch see drops in math and reading scores.)

After all, making sure kids get enough to eat was one of the key reasons the government got involved in school lunch (see “The Long, Strange History of U.S. School Lunch,” above). During World War I (1914-18) and World War II (1939-1945), malnourishment limited the number of eligible soldiers.

U.S. leaders wanted to make sure that American kids grew up healthy in case they were needed in the military in the future. That is why President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946. The law guaranteed that the federal government would help pay for public school meals. It also ensured that students in need would get at least one full meal a day. The government still provides free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch for millions of students across the country today. The program has been expanded over the years (see the “Share of Lunches That Are Free” circle graphs, below).

The meals have not just helped students’ bodies. They have also helped their brains. Students who eat nutritious food show improvements in concentration, thinking skills, and energy. They also tend to behave better in class. (Students who eat fast food for lunch see drops in math and reading scores.)

What U.S. Schools Are Dishing Up

* Data are preliminary

SOURCE: USDA Food and Nutrition Service

Keeping It Healthy

But filling students’ stomachs isn’t enough, say critics of the new school food rules. Students who buy school lunch every day get more than one-third of their daily calories in the cafeteria. Some experts say the government has a responsibility to make sure those calories are beneficial to students’ overall health. These latest changes don’t do that, critics say. 

The American Heart Association (AHA), for one, has spoken out against the new rules. “When it comes to our children’s health, there should be no ‘flexibility,’” AHA Chief Executive Officer Nancy Brown and her colleagues wrote last December in a statement.

But filling students’ stomachs is not enough, say critics of the new school food rules. Students who buy school lunch every day get more than one-third of their daily calories in the cafeteria. Some experts say the government has a responsibility to make sure those calories are beneficial to students’ overall health. Critics say these latest changes do not do that.

The American Heart Association (AHA) has spoken out against the new rules. “When it comes to our children’s health, there should be no ‘flexibility,’” AHA Chief Executive Officer Nancy Brown and her colleagues wrote last December in a statement.

600-700

The number of calories a middle school lunch must contain

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Brown and others point to childhood obesity rates, which have more than tripled in the U.S. since the 1970s. Today, one in five American kids ages 12 to 19 are dangerously overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those kids are at greater risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other conditions. 

Obesity disproportionately affects kids from low-income families—students who are already most likely to be relying on schools for breakfast and lunch five days a week. Those kids may not have access to nutritious food at home. 

The good news: The increase in childhood obesity rates has slowed in recent years, with some states reporting declines. But the new standards might undermine that progress, some experts warn.

Brown and others point to childhood obesity rates. These numbers have more than tripled in the U.S. since the 1970s. One in five American kids ages 12 to 19 are extremely overweight today. That is according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those kids are at greater risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other conditions.

Obesity disproportionately affects kids from low-income families. These students are already most likely to be relying on schools for breakfast and lunch five days a week. They may not have access to nutritious food at home.

There is good news: The increase in childhood obesity rates has slowed in recent years. Some states are reporting declines. But experts warn that the new standards might undermine that progress.

Finding Balance

For all the debate, the changes won’t affect many school cafeterias, predicts Gay M. Anderson. She’s the president of the School Nutrition Association, which represents cafeteria workers nationwide. 

Schools aren’t likely to get rid of healthier options if kids are eating them, Anderson says. Also, even though white bread and 1 percent chocolate milk are now allowed, nutrition directors may have trouble fitting them into the menu while still meeting calorie, fat, and sodium limits, which have stayed the same.

Still, some schools may now serve white pasta, flour tortillas, or white rice instead of the once-required whole-grain versions. That’s not necessarily bad—at least students will eat more of the food, Anderson says. Plus, some experts say, serving flavored 1 percent milk again could help boost milk consumption.

In the end, Anderson says, it’s all about balance. “We’re trying to find a happy, healthy medium for our students,” she explains. “We want the food in their bellies rather than going into the garbage can.”

For all the debate, the changes will not affect many school cafeterias, predicts Gay M. Anderson. She is the president of the School Nutrition Association. It represents cafeteria workers nationwide.

Schools are not likely to get rid of healthier options if kids are eating them, Anderson says. Also, even though white bread and 1 percent chocolate milk are now allowed, nutrition directors may have trouble fitting them into the menu while still meeting calorie, fat, and sodium limits. Those amounts have stayed the same.

Some schools may now serve white pasta, flour tortillas, or white rice instead of the once-required whole-grain versions. That is not necessarily bad. At least students will eat more of the food, Anderson says. Some experts say that serving flavored 1 percent milk again could help boost milk consumption.

Anderson says it is all about balance in the end. “We’re trying to find a happy, healthy medium for our students,” she explains. “We want the food in their bellies rather than going into the garbage can.”

Write About It! Are the new standards for school lunches a good idea? Find at least three facts or details from the story to support your opinion, and conduct additional research online. Then write an argument essay promoting your point of view.

Lunches Around the World

These photos from What’s for Lunch? How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World show what other kids dine on.

Japan
In Tokyo, students chow down on grilled sardines or other fish, plus rice and miso soup for kyushoku [kai-u-shoh-kyoo], Japanese for “school lunch.”

Japan
In Tokyo, students chow down on grilled sardines or other fish, plus rice and miso soup for kyushoku [kai-u-shoh-kyoo], Japanese for “school lunch.”

Peru
School ends early in farming communities outside Cuzco so kids can scarf down quinoa soup and roasted guinea pig at home before tending to crops.

Peru
School ends early in farming communities outside Cuzco so kids can scarf down quinoa soup and roasted guinea pig at home before tending to crops.

Russia
In Dubna, students fill up on beet soup, grilled beef, rye bread, and kasha (toasted buckwheat). They wash it down with compote, a fruit drink.

Russia
In Dubna, students fill up on beet soup, grilled beef, rye bread, and kasha (toasted buckwheat). They wash it down with compote, a fruit drink.

Yvonne Duivenvoorden (All Images)

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