Food Fight – Putting the fun back into school lunches

By Diana Fatayerji, M.S., Ph.D.

As parents we are aware that what our kids eat affects their health. We try to make healthy choices at the grocery store and to provide balanced dinners. We try to minimize sugary foods and soda that cause tooth decay, and to encourage fruits and vegetables that are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. However, we have less control over what our kids eat at school.

What our children eat at school is not only important in maximizing their mental alertness for the day’s learning, but what they learn about food choices can set lifetime patterns. Learning in childhood to enjoy a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains has a positive impact on health, weight and need for medical treatment. These positive effects continue into adulthood.

Helping children to eat better is more important than ever before. It is estimated that only 2% of children aged two to nineteen years eat a diet that is consistent with the Food Guide Pyramid.1 Most children eat too much salt, fat and total calories, and not enough fruit, vegetable and whole grains.

Obesity now affects one in five children in the United States.2 Between 1963 and 1980 the prevalence of obesity in children increased by 50%.3 Obese children are more likely to become obese adults and carry all the extra risks for diseases, such as heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention recently found that 60% of overweight five- to ten-year-olds already have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Furthermore, obese children and adolescents are often excluded from peer groups and discriminated against by adults, experience psychological stress, and have a poor body image and low self-esteem.

The increased incidence of obesity is due to increased calorie intake and decreased physical activity. Obesity is much easier to prevent than to cure, and prevention in childhood should be targeted through increased physical activity and appropriate caloric intake.

At a time when childhood obesity is escalating we would expect to see strict regulation of school lunches. Unfortunately this is not the case. Although the federal goal is to keep the fat content of school lunches below 30% (the level should probably be 20%), this is not properly enforced and is frequently exceeded. Additionally, snack machines are filled with high fat cookies and chips and sugar-laden soda and chocolate milk.

Who Is Regulating School Lunches?
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was established in 1946 to provide healthy meals to children, regardless of income. It provides schools with more than $6 billion each year so that they can offer low-cost meals to students.

This same organization subsidizes agricultural businesses. Each year the organization buys millions of pounds of excess beef, pork, milk and other dairy products to boost sagging prices in the livestock industry. These high-fat products are then sold to the NSLP at very low cost. Although this could be seen as a win-win situation, it actually results in high fat menus. In 2001 the program provided schools with $518.1 million of cheese, beef, poultry and eggs, and only $161.1 million of fruits and vegetables.

Schools are caught in a financial bind. Because meat and dairy products are subsidized it costs school districts more to provide high-fiber, low-fat, cholesterol-free vegetarian alternatives. Moreover, if soy milk is offered in place of cow’s milk, the school district will not receive reimbursement for the entire meal.

In response to serious health concerns the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) established the “Healthy Schools Campaign”. They are campaigning for school lunches to be lower in fat and to include more vegetables, fruits, vegetarian entrees and non-dairy sources of calcium.

The organization is beginning to successfully influence the menus offered at schools. They have seen improvements in the types of food offered to kids in some elementary schools. Detroit City School District now offers fruits and vegetables, calcium-fortified juices, meatless entrees and whole grain buns.

Although there has been some controversy over the PCRM’s ties to animal rights groups there is no doubt that their work is of great importance to the health of our children.

Snack Machines:

Virtually all senior high schools and most middle and junior high schools have vending machines or snack bars. The most commonly sold items in these are soft drinks, artificial fruit juices, candy, salty high-fat snacks and high-fat baked goods. Many kids spend their lunch money on these unhealthy vending machine snacks.

School officials often will not curb soda and junk food sales in schools for fear of losing desperately needed revenue. However, some schools have been able to raise as much, or more, revenue by selling healthful options. In an attempt to improve the quality of nutrition in schools the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has produced a “School Food Tool Kit” that provides examples of how to sell healthier foods without losing revenue (

Until recently the only federal regulation covering school vending machines is that they cannot be sold in the cafeteria during mealtime. However, California recently signed a law that sets nutritional standards for all beverages sold on elementary, middle and junior high school campuses. The law limits the sale of beverages in schools to milk, 100% fruit juices or fruit juice drinks with at least 50% fruit juice and no added sweeteners. Other U.S. states are following suit and have either introduced or are considering introducing similar legislations.

What Can You Do?

You can help the Healthy Schools Campaign to succeed by contacting your senator, writing to the USDA, contacting your local legislators, newspapers or school principle (

In the meantime you can talk to your children about the importance of nutrition. Get a copy of the school lunch menu for the week and buy hot meals only on the days when there is a relatively healthy option. Pack your own lunches and snacks the rest of the week.

Packing A Fun Lunch:

Lunch often tops children’s list of things they like best about school. It is both nutritionally and socially important. What you send for lunch needs to be “kid friendly”and cannot be messy or smelly.

Children tend to eat healthier if they have a say in their meal. Try to simplify the preparation by creating a weekly school lunch menu together. Many families find it easier to prepare lunches the night before, which saves time in the mornings. Don’t try to be too creative with the lunches – many kids like the familiarity of the same lunch day after day.

Be aware of what time your child gets their lunch break. If they have a late lunch, be sure to send a morning snack. If lunch is early, your child may prefer eating breakfast foods and to have lunch when they get home.

Some kids like sandwiches, but most want all the sandwich parts packed separately. This is why the conveniently packaged “lunchables” are so popular, however these offer low nutrient value and are expensive. Try to duplicate their meal pattern: small portions of meat or cheese, crackers, a cookie or pudding and a beverage.

Send a bottle of frozen water or 100% juice with their lunch to keep it cool. The drink should be defrosted in time for lunch.

School lunches

Current Menu
Menu Makeover
Chicken nuggets and potato puffs Vegetable chili with potato and vegetables
Grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup Vegetable and bean curry over brown rice
Chicken teriyaki with fried rice Chicken-vegetable stir-fry over brown rice
Hamburger and curly fries Turkey burger on multigrain bun with salad
Nachos and cheese with sweet corn Grilled fish taco with salsa, guacamole & salad

Snack Machines

Worst Options
Best Options
Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other soda Bottled water
Fruitopia and other “fruit” drinks 100% fruit juice
Chocolate milk Low fat milk
Kit Kat, snickers and other candy bars Granola bars
Sugary candies Trail mix
Fatty cookies Apple sauce cups (unsweetened)
 Fatty crackers and chips Apple sauce cups (unsweetened)

Lunch Boxes

Cheese cubes
Cottage cheese or yogurt
Nut butter
Hard boiled egg
Chicken drum stick
Sliced meat (nitrate free)
Tofu / tempeh cubes
Potato or rice salad
Multigrain bread or roll
Whole wheat pita
Whole grain crackers
Baked crackers
High protein muffins or brownies
Naturally-sweetened cereals
Baby carrots
Green beans
Red peppers
Veggy skewers
Sliced fruits
Apple sauce
All-fruit jelly
Fruit / veg. bars
Protein bars
Granola bar Yogurt
Tofu mousse
Trail mix
Seltzer water
Low fat milk
100% fruit juice
Switch juices
Juice squeeze

Chocolate tofu mouse:

Blend together 12 oz. Silken tofu, 3-4 tbsp. cocoa powder, 3 Tbsp. apple concentrate or date sugar. Adjust sweetener to taste.

High protein muffins or brownies
Replace a quarter of the flour in your favorite recipe with rice protein powder.


1. Mu~noz KA, et al. Food intakes of US children and adolescents compared with recommendations. Pediatrics. 1997;100:323-329.
2. Dietz WH. Health consequences of obesity in youth: predictors of adult
disease. Pediatrics. 1998;101S(3):518S-525S.
3. The Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health. Public Health Service, US Department of Health and Human Services. 1988;2.
4. esteem (Wadden TA, Stunkard AJ. Social and psychological consequences of obesity. Ann Intern Med 1985;103(6 pt 2):1062-7).
5. US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Nutrition and your health: dietary guidelines for Americans. 4th ed. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services, 1995.).