What’s For Lunch?

By: Liam Lynch ’13

Schools Need to Shape Up Their Dining Options

Photo Credit | Anton Kozlov
healthy lunch packed from home | Anton Kozlov

Head into your school cafeteria today, and you can expect to see an alluring array of lunch comestibles waiting for hungry children to scoop them up and devour them. The majority of elementary and high schools across the nation carry the same oh-so-beloved and reliable preset weekly meal plan schedule, from  “Mystery Meat” Mondays all the way to “French Fries” Fridays. You might be wondering, what kinds of foods the youth of America, the nation’s nest egg, are being fed. Frankly, not a lot of variety, but what they are consuming is given in excess. However you spin it: pizza, chips, hot dogs, french fries, tater tots, they’re all the same thing, carbohydrates with a smattering of processed meats and dairy comestibles. These make up the “big three” in lunchbox fare. “Well”, you may ask, “what could be wrong with that?” Aside from the heightened risk of obesity, memory issues, mental disorders, mood swings, depression, asthma, infertility, malnutrition and cancer…not a lot really. But all jokes aside, the effects of processed and devitalized foods like some of those seen in our very own school lunches are downright frightening.

The health repercussions of some of the processed foods used in today’s lunch menus can be very serious, and are not something to be taken lightly. Let’s look a bit closer and pick a popular lunch item that can generally be said to have been eaten by most students at least once per school year for lunch. How about the lovable and trusty hot dog? In a recent article published by Sixwise.com, it is written that a  “seven-year study of close to 200,000 people by the University of Hawaii found that people who ate the most processed meats (hot dogs, sausage) had a 67 percent higher risk of pancreatic cancer than those who ate little or no meat products” (All the Health Risks of Processed Foods). The reason for this grim outlook is the ingredients within these innocent looking tasty treats. Devitalized and low nutritional value ingredients make up the bulk of hot dogs and other processed meats. These types of ingredients include refuse and leftover meat scraps such as nerve tissue, organs, bone pieces, and other repugnant animal parts. Not only is this repulsive, it can also lead to the introduction of diseased and contaminated meats into the food. This was a major factor in the outbreak of the BSE epidemic, otherwise known as Mad-Cow Disease in the United Kingdom in 1993. Pieces of infected spinal and brain tissue were included in processed meats which then found their way into the mouths of hungry human consumers. Aside from the direct meat, there are also other ingredients within hot dogs such as sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate that can develop into cancer-causing compounds once inside the body. Carbohydrates in white breads like those in pizza can also be harmful. Once digested, these types of foods turn into glucose, a type of sugar, which, if consumed in excess, the body will transform into fat. Potato chips and french fries can be artery clogging nightmares due to their potent cocktail of fats, but they can also include a dangerous carcinogen and neurotoxin called acrylamide which can increase one’s risk of contracting cancer. Put together, the types of processed foods served on a daily basis to America’s youth come together to form a more than slightly scary predicament. No one should be consuming these types of foods, let alone children!

Although all this information might seem quite frightening, there is some good news. If consumption of these types of foods is reduced to a minimum, their previous effects can be reduced, counteracted, and even reversed. Schools throughout the nation have begun to realize this simple fact and are now implementing innovative lunch menus that conform to more stringent health standards. For example, the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) has just recently initiated a lunchtime food service program called “Farm to School”. It brings fresh produce from local farms right to the lunch trays of students. On its website, the SDUSD states that “Farm to School at its core is about establishing relationships between local foods and school children by way of including…local products in school meals [for] breakfast, lunch, [and] after-school snacks” (“What is Farm to School?”). Replacing processed foods with those that are locally grown and raised is a tremendous step forward in the health content of student lunch products. A not so new, but definitely creative, lunch program called the Edible Schoolyard (ESY) founded in the Berkeley Unified School District by Alice Waters also deserves much praise for its commendable deeds. In 1994, Alice Waters had a dream to transform a 1-acre empty lot in the back of the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California into an edible and farmable garden bonanza. During the 1995-1996 school year, that dream turned into a reality. The ESY website states that the Edible Schoolyard “involves students in all aspects of farming the garden and preparing, serving, and eating food” and allows “for every student to have a free, nutritious, organic lunch” (“The Edible Schoolyard Project”). Programs like the Farm to School and the Edible Schoolyard create sustainable and healthy ways to feed students. Acclaimed food guru, Michael Pollan, also mentions these two pioneering programs in the FAQ webpage for his book Food Rules that talks about healthy rules and guidelines that food consumers should follow. One of these rules is especially pertinent to the school lunch reform movement. As Rule #22, Pollan writes, “Eat mostly plants, especially leaves” (51, Food Rules). While this way of eating may not be as cost effective and cheap as serving up platefuls of refined and processed ready-made meals, it is still the right thing to do. Children need to learn early about being prudent in the choices they make, especially those that involve their life-long well-being. Along with being healthier than regular lunch programs, these food services also instill values in the students about healthy eating and living that they will take with them for the rest of their lives. Although the sustainable school foods movement is still young, it continues to grow at an astounding rate with new programs sprouting up each year.

Here at home, even our very own Stuart Hall High School’s lunchtime food service has recently begun trying to diversify its menu. We have been serving healthful sandwiches and nontraditional gourmet entrees such as Chinese food and burritos made from scratch. As an open-minded institution, Stuart Hall has recognized the importance of keeping its students physically fit and the long-term implications that this quality has on their lives. In the future, Stuart Hall’s students hope their school plans to further expand its salubrious meal plan to include an even greater variety of foods.

If eating from the school cafeteria is just not right for you, an alternative would be to pack a healthy lunch instead. Always be sure to include edibles from every food group in every meal, lunch is no exception. Fruits, vegetables, dairy, carbohydrates, meat, legumes, and fats are the mainstays of healthy eating. The key to a healthy meal is balance. A balance must be maintained between these foods in order for the meal to retain its wholesome potency. Too much fat negates the healthful effects of an otherwise beneficial lunch. The majority of what you pack should be leafy greens and the rest of your food should be split up equally between the other food groups. At first, switching from a high fat and high sugar diet to something along these lines can be challenging and the food can seem somewhat bland, but if practiced consistently this healthy habit of eating can be very enjoyable, rewarding, and extremely tasty.

What you eat should not be arbitrarily decided for you. It is a choice that one must consciously and wisely make due to the sway it will have on one’s well-being. Not only should healthy eating be an individual choice and habit, it should be a communal one as well. School lunches are an excellent way to showcase the type of eating that makes for strong, long-lived, happy, and prosperous lives. As Michael Pollan says in Rule #59 of Food Rules, “Try not to eat alone” (129, Food Rules). Beyond the literal sense of not eating alone is the idea of a community that supports each of its members and encourages them to practice healthy eating habits. Becoming a healthy eater is always easier when accompanied by others following the same path. Hopefully the beginnings of the school lunch reform movement are indicative of a cultural shift towards healthful and sustainable eating that will be eventually grow to encompass our farms, gardens, markets, restaurants, and dinner tables.