Some change also needs to occur outside the cafeteria, say experts. As food-service directors point out, healthy options will still compete with candy as rewards from teachers, birthday- and holiday-party goodies, bake-sale fund-raisers, and vending-machine choices.
There's an at-home element here, too, according to Dr. Washington from Action for Healthy Kids. "People have to realize that unless we do it in the home, unless we do it in places where kids spend their free time," he says, "you're not going to notice much of a difference." And the lunchroom needs to be seen as just as important as the classroom, says the School Nutrition Association's Peterson. There are issues beyond the food itself that stem from the emphasis placed on the all-important test prep -- such as the pitiful amount of time kids actually get for lunch. With students' hurried schedules, they have an average of 22 minutes to go through the lunch line, pick options, pay, socialize, and eat. Council Brandon says her class barely has 20 minutes. "I don't have enough time to really eat my food," she says. And lunchtime commonly comes before recess, which only adds to the rushing. Naturally, kids want to finish as fast as possible so they can go play. And fried finger foods are easy and quick to eat.
McGraw often hears her children say the food at school is "disgusting." (She found out just how disgusting on a day parents were invited to the cafeteria and sampled gloppy noodles in cheeselike sauce.) "I guess my answer has been to make their lunch instead of fighting it," she says. Lots of kids brown-bag it, but plenty want to buy lunch, and plenty of parents, particularly working ones with multiple kids, appreciate having less to do during the morning rush.
If throwing up your hands and making lunch every day doesn't work for you, here's an easy way to take action: Go to Actionforhealthykids.org/resources.php to search for ideas on how to get started. Share what you learn with other moms and make your voices heard. Banding together is the quickest way to make a change.
THREE STEPS TO BETTER FOOD FOR YOUR KID
1. Visit your child's cafeteria and keep an eye out for:
- Whole grains. At least half the grains offered should be whole ones, such as whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pizza dough, barley, and brown rice
- Vegetables of rainbow colors. Potato should not be considered a vegetable (and shouldn't always be fried).
- Protein options like skinless chicken, low-fat dairy, eggs, fish, chili, or soup with beans or lentils
- Low-fat or fat-free milk
2. Are you not loving what you found? Seek out like-minded parents. If your school has one, consider joining the wellness committee, usually composed of teachers, administrators, students, and parents. And learn from advocacy groups. You can get started with these websites:
3. Approach the school lunch director. Be ready with realistic suggestions, advises Jean Saunders, director of school wellness for the Healthy Schools Campaign: "If you need to buy canned fruit, can it be packed in its own juice?"; "Does your budget allow for more whole grains?"; "Would lower-sodium versions of what you're serving be possible?" If you can pay more, ask the school board to put lunch prices to a vote. A slight bump may free them from relying as heavily on snack sales.
You Ate What??
Here, the worst school lunches Ann Cooper, a leading advocate for healthier school lunch, has seen this year nationwide. Lilian Cheung, a registered dietitian and director of health promotion and communication for the Harvard School of Public Health's nutrition department, points to sugary drinks, canned food (high in sugar and salt), and zero whole grains. "To the human body, potatoes are closer to a jelly bean than a vegetable. And red and processed meats are linked to colon cancer down the road," she says.
1. Large soft pretzel, chocolate milk, fruit slushy
2. Chicken nuggets, hash browns, chocolate milk, canned fruit cocktail
3. Corn dog, french fries, "strawberry" milk, frozen juice bar
4. Two mini-cheeseburgers, french fries, canned corn, canned pineapple chunks, chocolate milk
5. Italian "Dunkers", "strawberry" milk, canned green beans
Jennifer Sinco Kelleher is an education reporter at Newsday in New York. She spent a year researching school food -- and tasting cafeteria lunches across Long Island.