The Politics of Cafeteria Food

Back to October 2012 Ed Reporter

The Politics of Cafeteria Food

The start of the 2012-13 school year also marks the first stages of implementation of President and First Lady Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The law will increase federal spending on school nutrition programs by $4.5 billion over the next ten years and, in its early days, the children aren’t liking it.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010, is intended to improve the health benefits of school lunches throughout the country by limiting the levels of sodium, protein, calories, and fat, as well as increasing the servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provided in school lunches. The nutritional requirements, such as the percentage of grains that must be whole-grain, will increase over the next few years. The law also includes provisions for offering qualified children three meals a day at their schools and even extending meal offerings into the summer.

This initiative is part of First Lady Obama’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity. A recent report releasedÿby Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimates that about one-third of American children are currently overweight. The report also recounts that in the United States, the cost of treating preventable, obesity-related illnesses is currently between $147-210 billion annually, and this spending could rise by another $48-66 billion by 2030. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is aimed at reducing both the rates and costs of obesity.ÿ

Concerning the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the First Lady said:

We know that ensuring that kids eat right and stay active is ultimately the responsibility of parents more than anyone else. . . . But, when our kids spend so much of their time each day in school and when many kids get up to half of their daily calories from school meals, it’s clear that we, as a nation, have a responsibility to meet as well. We can’t just leave it up to the parents. I think that our parents have a right to expect that their efforts at home won’t be undone each day in the school cafeteria or in the vending machine in the hallway.

While few would argue that school lunches meet the optimum levels of nutrition, this law raises questions about the federal government’s right to influence school lunches. School officials and students alike are arguing that the federal government should not be able to influence what is or is not served in local cafeterias. Students are outraged about the federal limits placed on the condiments they can consume and the removal of desserts and whole milk from their menus. Furthermore, parents are upset that they are often paying more for their children to have less food in the school cafeteria.ÿ

Accompanying the increased nutritional requirements, the law limits the maximum number of calories allowed in each lunch, allowing set maximum numbers of calories for students by age. For high schoolers, lunches may offer between 750-850 calories. K-5 kids can have 550-650 calories. Thanks to the increased emphasis on fruits and vegetables, main portion sizes in particular have decreased and many students claim they are still hungry after finishing lunch.

The complaint that students are not receiving enough calories may be well grounded. The Baylor College of Medicine Children’s Nutrition Research Center indicates that an average teen girl who exercises an hour a day needs to intake 2400 calories. According to Mary Hartley, Registered Dietitian for the website Diets in Review, “850 calories [at lunch] will meet the needs of all girls . . . but it is not enough for moderately and very active boys, ages 15-18.”

Some students have tried to start a movement of “Brown Baggin’ It” to pack lunches in protest of their cafeteria’s smaller portions and missing desserts. Following a Twitter trend, #BrownBagginIt, that started in Pittsburgh, PA, high schoolers at Rockford High School in Rockford, MN have organized a Facebook page promoting their cause and encouraging students to boycott the new school lunches with their own lunches from home. Jayme Sundby, Rockford High’s food service director from Taher, Inc., explained: “They show up the first day of school and things have changed. . . . To tell a high school student they can only have one ounce of dressing . . . it’s a challenge.”

Students at Wallace County High in Sharon Springs, Kansas created a music video entitled “We Are Hungry” (based on the song “We Are Young”) in order to express their dissent to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The video emphasizes the words “Hunger Free”ÿin the name of the law and depicts high school athletes falling over from hunger while trying to play sports, as well as elementary-age students, wearing backpacks and crawling through the hallways, as the song says “We are crawling home tonight.”ÿThe YouTube video had almost 800,000 views as of October 1, 2012.

In response to the complaints she is hearing from local students and parents, Maureen O’Neil, director of The Abbey Group that provides food for schools in southwest Vermont, explains the scope of the problem:ÿ

“It’s not the Abbey Group that’s just come in and raised your prices and said now you’re getting smaller portions. I think the information needs to get out there that we are part of a national school lunch program . . . and unless we want to run our own lunch program and raise our taxes and come out of this national school lunch program, we need to follow the guidelines.”