Revamped School Lunch Menus a Mixed Bag

If you’ve ever stepped foot in a school cafeteria, you likely bore witness to the chicken nuggets, tater tots, and other Frankenfoods that somehow pass for nourishment for our kids.

Recently the government gave a much-needed cleanup to federally subsidized school lunches for the first time in 15 years.

Many critics, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, applauded the changes. Obama, along with Rachael Ray, appeared at Parklawn elementary school in Alexandria, Virginia and posed with “healthy” turkey tacos based on Ray’s recipe.

But not everyone seemed so thrilled about these dietary revisions. Conservatives balked that government shouldn’t tell kids what to eat. And some school districts claimed this overhaul was a bit extreme and way too pricey.

The final guidelines are, if you’ll pardon the pun, a mixed bag. Congress nixed the USDA’s proposal, for instance, to limit starchy vegetables and declassify pizza as a vegetable.

But let’s start with the good. I’m happy that school lunchrooms expanded their fruit and vegetable repertoire beyond French fries and syrupy peaches. Among the improved selection include broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and kiwi.

And hey, they even swapped tater tots for healthier sweet potato fries. That’s a mild thumbs-up in my book.

The improved menu also decreased sodium, which runs rampant in most processed foods. Trans fats are out the door. And lunchrooms more carefully monitor the calories kids eat.

That’s where the problems begin. I’m all for eating fewer processed, fried foods, but giving kids five chicken nuggets rather than eight does not suddenly make chicken nuggets healthy.

I’m all about the quality of the foods rather than counting calories, particularly for growing kids. But I digress.

Lunchrooms now serve a healthier pizza. I’m a little skeptical, however, about what constitutes “healthy” after a bill passed last November that counts tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable. And switching from white to whole-wheat crust does not significantly up the nutrient factor.

The new guidelines only permit schools to serve low-fat milk, and flavored milks (like chocolate milk) must be non-fat. Never mind the high levels of lactose intolerance and other problems with milk.

And chocolate milk (particularly fat-free chocolate milk) packs as much sugar as a soda. How is this healthier?

These dubious improvements aren’t much of a shock when you find out potato growers and frozen-pizza manufacturers heavily influenced these new guidelines. These guys aren’t exactly going to promote fresh broccoli and apple slices.

While I’m happy the revamp took several steps in the right direction, these “improved” guidelines also revealed how much more we have to do to make school lunches healthy.

On a positive note, I’m thrilled to see more parents taking control over the processed chemical crap that passes for kids’ foods. They’re ditching the Lunchables and processed foods cafeterias serve for a kid-friendly Paleo approach.

I know asking school lunchrooms to go Paleo is wish fulfillment, but you can pack your own kid’s lunch and teach healthy habits for life.

A Paleo lunch might include grilled chicken fingers, sliced sweet potatoes, asparagus, and raw almonds. Kids love it, and they’ll love you since they no longer have to fall victim to soggy, lukewarm lunchroom chicken nuggets.