Guest Blog Post: Andy Bellatti’s Experience as a School Nutritionist

I met Andy Bellatti of Small Bites, or rather he found this blog, last year and we became friends. I was intrigued when he told me that to be certified as a nutritionist, he would be spending some time in a public school cafeteria. He offered to share his experience as his dietetic internship in the public school setting. What follows is our interview…

1)     Tell us about your dietetic internship. What does that involve?

A dietetic internship is required by the American Dietetic Association in order to take the Registered Dietitian exam.  It consists of at least 1200 practice hours, divided between different rotations.  Although internships vary somewhat in structure, they all offer a certain amount of hours of clinical, community, food service, and administrative nutrition experience.

I was very fortunate in that my internship director and the majority of my preceptors were very open to – and in some cases aligned with — my approach to nutrition, which is not the traditional one associated with Registered Dietitians (for a Cliffs Notes version of my approach, this blog post and this interview sum it up well).

2)      Were you able to choose a Seattle public school or was that mandatory?

I was in Seattle PS during my two-week “community nutrition administration” rotation.  My internship director was aware of my interest in food politics and the school lunch program (the first or second week of the internship, I mentioned ‘Fed Up With Lunch’ during a group discussion), so she placed me in the sole PS spot available each year.

3)      Did you work at a central office or onsite at a school?

Both.  I was in the central office three out of eight days.  That central office houses the Seattle PS central kitchen, which is responsible for approximately 17,000 meals a day!

The other days,  I went to elementary, middle, and high schools to observe lunch periods.  I would often get there thirty or twenty minutes before the beginning of lunch so I could talk to the cafeteria staff.

4)      What were your main duties?

My main project was to help the nutrition director brainstorm the logistics to implement salad bars in some elementary schools.  I visited two elementary schools that already had salad bars to observe how their cafeteria was set up, how much time it took students to go through the line, notice any issues with flow, what students ate/didn’t eat, etc.

I then went to two elementary schools that didn’t have salad bars to see, firstly, if students were interested in having one, and also to strategize how the salad bar could be easily integrated in a way that would be manageable for the staff.  Part of my project included suggesting specific salad bar models that were the appropriate height for children and would accommodate enough food, etc.

I personally asked to visit middle and high schools.  That was not part of my project; just my interest in seeing nutrition in different settings.

5)      What did you observe in your internship?

So many things!  I’ll narrow it down to the things that struck me most:

  • Contrary to much of Big Food’s messaging (“our product sneaks in a full serving of vegetables!”) children enjoyed fruits and vegetables. They ate tomatoes and carrots without ranch dip.  Hummus was available with carrots, and kids as young as six and seven years old were loving it. On the days I was there, the fruit of the day was watermelon; the kids would get visibly excited when they walked up to the salad bar and saw the sliced watermelon.
  • In one of the “salad bar-less” elementary schools, I went table to table and asked the students their thoughts on possibly getting a salad bar.  I got an overwhelmingly positive response; kids started listing fruits and vegetables they wanted and liked (without me prompting them).  I later found out that particular school had integrated nutrition and gardening into their curriculum.  Truly amazing the power that has.  In the other school, which didn’t have that element to their curriculum, the response was more neutral.  It certainly wasn’t negative, though.  At the very least, every child was able to identify one vegetable they liked.  None of the 100 or so children I spoke with said, “I hate vegetables”.  Peer pressure?  Perhaps.  But, that’s an example of positive peer pressure.
  • Okay, now to the not-so-rosy part.  Every middle and high school has a salad bar.  But, pizza, burgers, cheeseburgers, breaded chicken sandwiches, and fries are offered daily. Sure, the fries are baked (Seattle was very progressive in that they removed all deep fryers from school kitchens seven years ago), but you are still talking about a frozen potato product that has a litany of ingredients tacked on and is about twelve degrees of separation from an actual potato.
  • I was appalled at how little time some students had to eat lunch in the high school I visited. In the elementary and middle schools, the line moved fast enough that students had plenty of time.  I didn’t see anyone rushing to eat or still having two thirds of their food left when the bell rang.  At the elementary schools, children also had the option of staying an additional five minutes after the bell rang if they needed more time to eat (no students did on the days I was present). However, at that high school I visited, not only was the student population much larger, but school clubs had short meetings during the 30-minute lunch period!Students were coming to the cafeteria five minutes before lunch period ended; all that was left were chicken nuggets and fries.  I sat with one of these ‘late-arrivals’ and we chatted briefly; she said this five-minute lunch was common for her.  I thought about her the rest of the day, mainly about the fact that she ate processed, minimally nutritious food in a hurry and then had several hours of class left.  That is not okay.
  • At the high school, the cafeteria had a store that sold Izze sodas, Baked Lay’s, and cookies.  I talked to the student employees and they told me they almost always run out of the cookies.

6)      Did you find the experience enlightening? What surprised you the most?

Very enlightening.  I got a better feel for the challenges that are present.  For example, if an elementary school is to incorporate a salad bar, it means the cafeteria staff will now be expected to cut and slice fresh fruit (schools without salad bars offer a bowl of whole fruit and – get ready to cringe – single-servings of various plastic-wrapped vegetables; moving to a salad bar also means using a lot less plastic!).

That shift to tasks like slicing watermelons and oranges requires a new labor contract with the union, which is a process that takes time and negotiating.  So, Seattle PS can not simply say, “Okay, starting next month, you’ll have a salad bar!”.  The rotation, while short, gave me a good understanding of realistic timelines.

I also see the financial struggle, and the low priority nutrition has in most schools from an economic and administrative perspective.  Schools simply don’t invest money in their cafeteria kitchens.  Money is allotted to almost all other areas first.  To be honest, I wouldn’t call what I saw kitchens, but heating stations.  The food is made in the central kitchen and then heated up at each school.  It’s sad, especially because I think there could be so much value in having students volunteer or do activities that involve helping prepare (as in cut, chop, cook) real food.

It was also interesting to see such a dichotomy in the central kitchen.  On the one hand, you have some local and organic produce (beyond the basics, too – fresh jicama was being cut up at one station when I was there) and there are enchiladas made from fresh ingredients (as opposed to arriving frozen).  Yet, literally about ten feet away, you see boxes of pre-made nacho cheese sauce mix with an unsavory ingredient list.  But, then again. about thirty feet away from that, focaccia bread is being made from scratch.

7)      What if anything needs to change from a nutritionist’s point of view in the school system?

I don’t think I speak for all nutritionists when I say this, but this is my take:

First, get rid of flavored milks.  They are not needed.  I am not in the “bone health is all about dairy!” camp (in this recent blog post, I explained why focusing on calcium and vitamin D is not enough from a bone health perspective). I don’t believe in the catastrophic “if kids don’t drink chocolate milk, they won’t drink milk at all!” viewpoint.  First, that isn’t necessarily true.  Second, there are so many cultures where dairy is not a central part of the diet and children are growing just fine.  I don’t think milk is the ‘magic elixir’ the Dairy Council wants us to think it is, but if schools want to offer plain milk, that’s fine.

However, I also think it’s crucial to step back from – and challenge — this dairy framework that has become so normalized.  I believe every table in a school cafeteria should have a large pitcher of water.  I understand that could imply some additional waste, in terms of each student needing a container to drink that water out of, but schools could offer compostable and biodegradable cups.  My point is – let’s get pitchers of water in there (with some orange or strawberry slices in there for truly natural flavor!) and send the message that water is a perfectly acceptable beverage.  Of course, it would help if the USDA didn’t require a dairy component at every meal.  As it is now, all children are required to put some sort of milk carton on their lunch tray (by the way, at the end of the lunch periods, I saw so many almost-full milk cartons poured out).  Milk should not be the only source of hydration at lunch time.

In the middle and high school levels, the daily offering of pizza, breaded chicken, hamburgers, and fries has to go.  I would be okay with one of those being offered once a week (so, in essence, pizza once a month, hamburgers once a month, etc.).  The fact that middle and high school students can eat a hamburger, fries, and chocolate milk five days of the week for the entire school year is absurd and a nutritional aberration.

The other issue (and this applies at the elementary level, too) is that as long as programs like the USDA’s US Healthier School Challenge   focus solely on nutrients, rather than ingredients, we won’t see a push towards better food.  What we’ll see is a “breadsticks and marinara sauce” entree with fewer milligrams of sodium and some more whole grains.  That is a “better than before” option but not necessarily a “good one” that offers much in the way of nutrition.

8)      Can a parent meet with a school district’s nutrition staff?

Ooh, I wish you had asked me this while I was at the rotation so I could have asked.  I’d imagine so; I didn’t get the impression they were secretive in any way.  Of course, as you very well know, the school lunch issue has so many players (and layers) to it that there is an initial learning curve in understanding how all the pieces fit.

9) Anything else you would like to share?

I always knew school lunch was a multi-layered issue, but it wasn’t until this two-week experience that I got an understanding of all the respective pieces.  Throughout the rotation I was reminded of how misguided current agricultural policies are, and also how meeting MyPlate or food group requirements is mainly politics – not nutrition – at work.

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, is a Seattle-based nutritionist who approaches nutrition from a whole-foods, plant-centric framework. He also takes a strong interest in food politics, nutrition policy, and deceptive food industry marketing tactics. He is the creator of the Small Bites blog and can be followed on Twitter.

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30 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post: Andy Bellatti’s Experience as a School Nutritionist

  1. Good information Thanks for taking the time to see what is offered at some schools. I have packed my sons lunches since the first day of kindergarten. They are now in 8th and 11th. My 11th grader eats lunch on Friday when they offer chicken, mashed potatoes,peas and a roll. My 8th grader never eats school lunches.

  2. Great insight from a different perspective.

    The district where I attended high school was so highly populated that they actually split up the grades–9th and 10th were at their own individual high schools (I think at least 4 in our district) and 11th and 12th were individual senior high schools (3). At my senior high school, my graduating class was about 1400 students. No, that is not a typo. 1400. Not to mention that was only my class! There was still another 1000+ students in 11th grade at the time I graduated. That is a lot of kids! We were split into 2 lunch groups, which–needless to say–is literally impossible for a single cafeteria to feed. What was the solution? Implementing off campus lunch. The cafeteria there is so small it’s a joke, I think maybe a couple hundred people could comfortably fit in there to eat.

    I can’t remember if we had an hour or a half hour for lunch–I think it was an hour. But here’s the issue–800-1000 students leave campus at the same time, the way out that is closest to drive thru’s and other restaurants is a 4 way stop. Agonizingly slow. Most students tried to carpool at least for lunch, but that’s still hundreds of cars leaving the parking lot at the same time. By the time you get out of the parking lot, you faced a 10+ minute drive to the nearest drive thru (unless you drove to the strip mall which had pizza, a coffeeshop, and a questionable chinese restaurant and was only a block down the road). Most of us tried to actually head into the fast food chains to eat rather than eat in our cars. Not only did we face the lunch rush of the business people in the area, but all the other kids were out as well! So we had 10 minutes max to actually order and eat, before piling back into the car to get back to campus and actually get a parking spot that wasn’t in, what we liked to call, BF nowhere which in you were the unfortunate group that got stuck there you faced a 5-10 minute walk back to the buildings on campus and would likely be late for class.

    With the prospective of off campus lunch, can you imagine how many students actually brought their lunch? I was one of the fortunate ones that had brought my lunch since I was in kindergarten–I can count on one hand the number of times in my entire school career I actually had to go through the lunch line (thanks, Mom!). By the time off campus lunch rolled around, I was a 16 year old with a license and a car–heck no was I bringing my lunch and staying on campus! For the same amount–or maybe even less–kids could bring a few bucks that they would typically have to used for grilled cheese, pizza, chicken tenders, fries, chicken nuggets, etc. in the cafeteria, bum a ride off of a pal, and hit the drive through.

    Would it surprise you to say that this all took place in a state with one of the highest rates of obesity in the nation? Probably not. I was at my personal heaviest weight when I graduated, which fortunately was still considered in the healthy range for my age and height, but my weight gain was directly correllated with participating in off campus lunch.

    1. wow, that is a pretty crazy story from one who is a gatherer of crazy nutrition/food stories. off campus lunch–there is so much subtext there. thanks for sharing this story.

  3. Thank you for your comments. I want to point out, by the way, that that photo accompanying this post is one I took at an elementary school that had recently implemented a salad bar. I love the vibrant colors!

    @Andrea: Wow; as I read your account, the word that came to mind was “a feeding environment not at all conducive to learning”. Imagine if school lunch for just a sliver of the attention provided to state testing!

    1. Dear Andy, Thanks for sharing this experience. Despite the common challenges of large school food service programs that you aptly describe, you were still fortunate to be in a progressive locale and there were some good initiatives happening. Jicama! Clearly you are not in Kansas anymore. Compared to the school lunch programs in many areas, including the city schools in a large state capital that I have had a good inside glimpse of–and have written about– I think you could have observed a lot worse. Keep up your good work.

      1. Elin,

        Absolutely, and thank you. This post was not intended as an “everything I witnessed was horrible” account, but rather to show the mind-blowing dichotomies that exist (and also to show how more progressive school districts, like Seattle’s, operate their lunch programs).

  4. My daughter is in seventh grade, and if I don’t have time to pack her lunch in the morning, odds are 50/50 that she’ll come home and tell me she didn’t eat because the lines were too long. Sometimes she manages to get through the line, but there’s no meatless option for her. (Ironically, she says the longest lines are always at the station with the pre-made iceberg lettuce salads in a cup.) Occasionally she’ll even bring part of her packed lunch home and say she didn’t have time to finish – with a big, crowded campus and only 30 minutes for lunch, even needing to visit her locker before her next class can seriously cut into her break. I wish they could make the school day just 15 minutes longer to give the kids more time.

  5. Your capacity for critical thought seems to be absent. Also, your blog is distasteful. That’s a pun.

  6. Fantastic summary. Very similar to what I am observing in my school food service rotation as part of my dietetic internship.

    One refreshing thing about my preceptor is that he strives to provide healthier foods within the farthest reaches he can without going outside federal mandate. His biggest frustration with school lunches are the federal commodities (being the processed foods you have also expressed frustration for). As a small school district he is not able to find much means around them, but has said that if only the biggest districts in Washington State would rally together (i.e. Seattle and Tacoma) there is a bleak possibility that some healthier commodities could be negotiated at the state level (there is power in numbers, translated as “money”).

    I am beginning to see the inner workings of the politics behind everything though. It truly is brilliant politics at work. For example the school district I am at gets thousands of pounds of ground beef commodities, as do all districts in Washington State. The person in charge of commodities for Washington state sits on the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, a coincidence? I think not.

    It is unfortunate that even those districts who want to make a change cannot, until our government changes the way it looks at food. Who knows when and if that will happen. I am just hopeful that school nutrition directors will continue to see and learn the benefit in good nutrition for kiddos and push for a change.

    Sorry this was a longer response than I intended. As always, great post Andy!

  7. We didn’t grow up with a lot of money and there were four kids in my family. My mom made our lunches from the 1st day we started kindergarten until we graduated high school. If you’re going to complain about the food they serve at school, then make your children their lunch from home!!! It’s your responsibility as a parent to feed your children nutritious food!!!!

    1. School lunches are state funded. Schools teach nutrition, schools should implement healthy nutrition at lunch. Also some people cant afford to bring lunches to school. So stop being so damn ignorant.

      1. Some people can’t afford to bring lunches to school? Are you seriously presenting this argument?

        At the high school I went to (this is years ago prices mind you) buying a small pizza and a milk would cost $4.50. Now here is some math for you:

        Loaf of 9 grain bread: $3.29
        Lean Lunch meat: $2.99
        1 Pound Spinach: $1.50
        1 Pound Tomatoes: $1.79

        Total : $9.57

        This HUGE amount of food will make more than 10 sandwiches (likely will have extra spinach/tomatoes as well for dinner).

        This amounts to a sandwich that costs less than $1 (what do you know, cheaper than McDonalds too!)

        Buying raw ingredients at home, rather than post-processed, assembled food is by nature far cheaper. As an industrial/operations engineer who oversees plants in the food industry, I can say without a doubt that making food at home is cheaper and healthier.

        I wholly agree with Christine that healthy choices start and end at HOME not in school. Schools should not be liable for poor parenting skills.

  8. For 2 years, I vounteered as a lunchroom assistant at a Seattle Public school. I was appalled at what we were serving the kids… I felt so sorry for many of them, as there were few choices…. too small of portions for the older kids… and when it got towards the end of the line, only the worse, oldest and burnt was left for them. They would ask if there was ANYTHING else. The lunch room lady would say “NO”…. you have to take it.

    I would sneak back to the fridge and get them yougerts when the “old bag” wasn’t looking.

  9. Thirty minutes for a lunch period??? My lord, what a dream! Our MS and HS students have only 22 minutes, and this is from the time they leave class. Often-times, by the time the last student goes through the line, they have maybe five minutes to eat.

  10. My Mom happens to be a School Nutritional Director for more then 20 schools, in are district. I don’t know if she is planning the Salad Bar… but the first thing that came to mind was. YUCK!! I was a high school kid in 04 – 06 and I knew a lot of kids that never washed there hands and that would pick up a basket of fries… grope them and then put them down. Could you imagine what they would do to that salad bar? Kids are gross. Kids also know what’s good for them. I never had to go through a line. I walked right in grabbed a pre-made salad in a plastic container some vinaigrette, and yeah a milk. I love milk. and had plenty of time to eat and gab away with my friends. And we had a HUGE high school. And If I didn’t want a salad that day I waited in line for about 5 minutes and got a Home style Meal. Which always had something healthy and delicious. There “is” a new guideline involving salt in school lunch…. and on the ala cart burgers are only there once every two weeks. I just don’t really understand if it is true and burgers and fries and pizzas are being served every day for a week… how are they getting by the new guidelines? How are they surviving the new regulations?

    Also, I forgot about the money for a salad bar. Some districts just don’t have that kind of funding… it’s sad. But if there is already pre-maid salads with every vegetable you can imagine in them… isn’t that good enough? It’s also not the lunch ladies job to teach your kids about good nutrition… it’s your jobs as parents to fill there brains while the lunch ladies try and fill there stomachs with good wholesome food. 🙂

  11. Andy;

    I enjoyed your article as I have been interested in this debate for some time now. Many things I agree with you on and many I do not. When you use terms like “Big Food” however, it tells me that you are motivated as much by politics as you are by nutrition. The food industry does not attempt to deprive children of their fruits and vegetables. The food industry simply produces products people want to purchase. Some of those products utilize fruits and vegetables and some of them don’t. The industry understands the fact that parents have the greatest influence, even a biological influence, over what their children will eat.

    Some kids get excited about fruits and vegetables while others don’t. I think it’s better for kids to each carrots with dressing than to not eat them at all. Remember, it isn’t nutrition until it’s consumed. The latest conventional wisdom regarding school nutrition seems to be that it is better that kids go hungry than to eat foods the purists might find objectionable. If you think school food is bad today, then you didn’t grow up on school cafeteria food in the 60’s and 70’s. You guys have no idea just how far school food has come from those days. Even so, back then obesity was rare in school aged children. Of course, way back then we had recess three times a day and the PC police didn’t exist so kids could actually run around and let off steam (and burn calories). Back then, we didn’t go home after school and sit in front of a TV or video game surrounded by food. Instead, we played with friends outside until it was time to go home for dinner. There was little snacking then and, quite frankly, we didn’t think about food because we were too busy doing other things.

    As a student of biochemistry, and later as a food science professional, I have been amazed by the amount of attention being paid to the the source of energy kids are consuming with little thought given to the burning of that energy. Let’s define obesity: Obesity results from an imbalance between energy consumed in foods and energy burned by metabolic processes and physical activity. To focus only on one side of the equation, while schools eliminate recess, PE class and after school activities, doesn’t make sense. According to Health and Human Services data caloric intake for those aged 6-11 has remained relatively constant since 1974. So what’s changed? Yup, lack of physical activity. I only wish contemporary nutritionists would place as much emphasis on the burning of energy as they do on the consumption of it.

    Also, food choice alone does not make a person healthy or unhealthy. Being healthy combines genetic factors, lifestyle choices, diet, and exercise. Instead of eliminating completely or over-emphasizing the importance of a certain food, people should eat a wide variety of foods in moderation and get regular exercise. Fruits, vegetables, bread, dairy, and meat all have their place in a healthy diet and the occasional brownie or coke isn’t going to instigate a medical nightmare either as long as they remain an occasional treat.

    You couldn’t be more wrong on flavored milk. Next to egg albumin, milk casein is probably the highest quality protein people can consume, and growing children need lots of high quality protein (and calcium that is readily absorbed). You should also be aware of the importance of phosphorous in the diet (bone health) and how milk is a solid source for this essential compound.

    You should probably listen more to the dairy folks because what they are telling you is absolutely true. There are an endless list of reasons for children to drink milk, flavored or not. If you’re going to force kids to drink 1%, 2% or skim milk you’d better find someting to make it more palatable, otherwise it’s going into the garbage. Yes, fat is an incredibly effective delivery system for flavor. Without it, you’re going to have a much harder time getting them to drink it. As a matter of fact, many studies (and no, these are not sponsored by the dairy industry) show us that these low fat milks end up in the garbage either unopened or with most of the milk still in the carton. Again, it is a mystery why contemporary nutritionists would rather have the milk tossed, and all the potential nutrition lost, than to add some flavoring (yes, and calories) and have it consumed. Good luck standing over these kids and demanding that they drink it without flavoring. I have two kids (aged 10 and 7) so I know how that will end up. Nationally, 70% of the milk chosen in school is flavored. Remove the flavoring and kids will quit drinking milk and you will not impact the obesity problem in any way.

    It appears that you also have some conerns with flavorings used in milk. In some cases milk processors will use natural flavorings, but in most milk artificial flavors are used. Please be aware that artificial flavors, in most cases, are biochemically identical to those found in the food naturally, and at similar concentrations. Most flavors are used gerally in a range from 1 part per million to just 1 part per trillion. At these levels, the chemicals are absolutely harmless. As you are aware, dangeous chemicals occur naturally in trace amounts in many of the foods we enjoy every day. That doesn’t make the foods dangerous or less healthy.

    I think adding salad bars, fresh fruits and fresh vegetables to school menus is a great thing. School foodservice has come a long way over the last few decades. Even so, the high fat/calorie diets we enjoyed at school in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s didn’t result in an obese or overweight society. I think it’s a good thing that folks are trying to improve the food service in our schools and I wish them the best during these challenging economic times. I’d be in favor of eliminating 20% of all school adminstrators and using that money to support better food for our schools.

    What I have a problem with is people blaming food, and the food industry in general, for something that isn’t caused by the food we eat or the food industry. To ameliorate the problem, you’re first going to have to identify the cause(s). It’s clear to me that those trying to deal with our overweight society are focused on solutions that will not impact the problem in any way. I’m not one to get on the wagin simply because we need to do something. Doing the wrong thing for the right reasons is still doing the wrong thing.

    “It is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done.”
    -Oscar Wilde

  12. My daughter’s high school is so crowed the kids get a mere 23 (or 24 if later in the day) minutes to get to the lunch area, get in line, sit, and eat. My dd has not gotten a lunch yet this year – she says the lines are too long. She gets in the faster-moving line for one of the vending machines that line the room. Since she leaves to catch the bus at 6:30am and doesn’t get home until almost 4pm…long day with little food!

    1. How about your daughter packs her lunch? That way, she will have nutritious food regardless of the length of the line.

      Stop complaining and start acting.

  13. I enjoyed this article. The description of the high school lunches reminded me of my own high school experience…and that was in the 1980s! Now I teach in an urban district in our urban and rural districts. I wish that someone would spend some time reviewing free and reduced lunch programs. My students never…yes, I said NEVER get fresh fruit or vegetables. The closest they get to a vegetable is tater tots and sometimes they get a prepackaged fruit cup. The lunch room staff unpacks lunches and places them in warming drawers. Today my students got a small cardboard bowl of meat sauce that was covered with plastic. To go with it they got fruit cup and a hot dog roll. They also got a choice of white or chocolate milk…that’s it! I am nostalgic for my own memories of elementary school lunches…when we had soup, those ladies had been in there early in the morning chopping up vegetables and making stock. I’m sure the urban school lunches were better then, too.

  14. This is such a great post! I am currently in a public speaking class in college right now, and this is my topic for my next speech coming up (and I am definitely using this post as a source) . I am also majoring in dietetics and this issue is something I am really interested in. The lunches at my middle school and high school were absolutely terrible! French fries, muffins (mind you 480 calories and 26 grams of fat..that were a favorite by almost every student), chicken patties and cheeseburgers were offered EVERY single day. It disgusted me so much that I stopped buying lunch in 8th grade, and never did again after that. Hopefully changes to EVERY school in the nation will be made before I have children and have to send them off to school.

  15. Thanks for the insight. I am a Dietitian and a mom of a child in the local elementary school and am frequently appalled by what I see. I have been trying to start a school wellness committee to address the lunches and recess (or lack thereof) but have been hitting a brick wall. I now see better why there may be resistance or at least a feeling of “it’s never going to happen” among school staff.

    BTW – I was fortunate that my school had a salad bar and plenty of time to eat so it never occured to me that it might not be that way everywhere. You can imagine my shock the first time I ate lunch with my daughter at school.

  16. While I generally argue for unions, I found it unsettling that something as simple as the switch to slicing fruit as opposed to using prepackaged stuff required a labor negotiation. Still, it’s worth the effort. The elementary school I went to had a lot of the stuff they have now, the burgers and fries and flavored milk, but they always had a salad bar, and I think it was good for me to actually have a choice.

  17. Michael M, great comments. I agree on the energy balance issue, especially when one knows that kids don’t eat much more than they used to a generation ago.

    However, I think that a lot of what is driving the interest in making school lunches better is one of shifting responsibility – for some (many?) kids, the school lunch could be the healthiest meal they eat all day. I absolutely think that parents SHOULD BE providing whole food meals at least once per day – the sit-down dinner is the obvious precedent. But, many parents do not do this and may not be easily convinced to change. Therefore, it is not at all a bad idea to try to introduce nutritive whole foods into the school lunch.

    So the problem is removed – parents need to do their duty. Until they do in much larger numbers, there can be real effects gained from serving “better than crap” in school. In that case you have to get school districts on board, but that might be easier than each and every parent of those district kids.

    A small example – I ate cereal at home for breakfast every day in middle and high school (pretty crappy, but at least it was not sugary cereal). For dinner, I ate with my family, at the table, something in the “overcooked meat plus two veg” vein. But it was real food. Not pizza, not snacks or chips or takeout. At school I went through at least a year-long phase where I had a Hostess and a Capri-Sun for lunch. Because I could. At the time I was an athlete and overall, I was fine. Decent food at home, gym class, and sports made up for the Hostess.

    It’s all a big puzzle. School lunch is just one piece but if it can be made better, that’s still good.

  18. Parents, please pack your children’s lunches. Until you do, please stop the complaining; beggars cannot be choosers.

    I understand and hear the argument that school lunch is the only meal children get in a day for low income kids. Enabling the parents by providing breakfast and lunch (FREE) will not teach them the value of preparing meals; it will only support their neglect.

    If parents cannot afford to provide a breakfast or lunch for their children, perhaps they should not have children or their existing children should live with relatives.

    How long and for how many do we continue to enable poverty, irresponsibility, and lack of education through HAND-OUTS???

    1. I remember a colleague who packed her son’s lunch but had to give him money to stop at a convenience store every morning to buy a half-pint of milk because the refrigerator had broken and she was several paychecks away from a new one. In the meantime, at home they cooked only what they could eat at each meal–no way to save leftovers–or ate peanut butter sandwiches that didn’t depend on refrigeration.

      I also remember having to pack a peanut butter sandwich and fresh fruit for lunch day after day because my mother and I couldn’t think of any other main dish that would be safe to eat after it sat in my locker for five hours and could be palatable without warming. (I couldn’t have taken an insulated cooler with ice in it–not only did they not exist then, but with two students to a locker designed for one, there was barely room for our winter coats and whatever textbooks we didn’t need for that part of the day. If you wanted to wear boots in snowy or rainy weather you had to wear them all day because the only place to put them was on top of the books that occupied the bottom of the locker.)

      And by the way, why are so many parents saying they pack their kids’ lunches? If the kid is above the second or third grade and can make his own snacks, he can do the actual packing. If he’s older, he can do the planning, too.

  19. I packed my lunch while in high school because of dietary problems. I finally started carrying a thermos of hot tea, because the rule was that if you bought ANYTHING from the cafeteria, even just a carton of milk, you had to stand in line with the students buying a full lunch. Student could buy extra milk for themselves, but you were not allowed to then pass it along to a friend who had packed a lunch. Besides, the milk was set out about a half-hour before the first lunch period, so if you had a late lunch it was room temperature. (One year I had a study hall in the cafeteria–baby boomer years, we even had a study hall on the stage during phys ed classes–so I know exactly when they began putting supplies out.)

    Second, bottles of water might work–in fact, I have subbed in schools where bottled water was very popular–but would you want to drink out of a pitcher after a third-grade boy has been handling it? Most third-grade girls find even sitting at the same table with them an appetite-killing situation! (And don’t believe some boys won’t try to have a spitting contest if the teacher’s not looking.)

  20. At my school protien sources are either hamburger patties or chicken nuggets. the school’s “Beef and Broccoli” is really cut-up hamburger patties for the “beef”, slathered with a reheated sauce. Hamburgers, pizza, and sub sandwhiches are available every day, however the subs are made with cheap deli meat and highly proccessed American cheese.
    i personally take my own lunch almost every day.
    By the way, did you know McDonald’s chicken nuggets are less than 50% actual chicken?

  21. I agree. It is so important to know the difference because that can make or break the kind of service we get as patients. A registered Nutritionist is more likely to be knowledgeable about the different diseases people have and how best to handle them. Thanks for sharing and keep posting.

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