School Lunch Program

Updated on September 15, 2013
J.H. asks from Craig, CO
20 answers

Hello. I was complaining to a friend of mine and she suggested I check out this site for some input...Hi Jess :)
Now, I will be the first to admit, my family doesn't eat the "healthiest" foods. I do my best to put a healthy meal in front of them each night for supper, but we are cattle ranchers, and therefore, we eat A LOT of red meat. My family of 4 goes through about 9 gallons of milk a week. I often have "junk food" in the pantry, (Little Debbie snack cakes, chips, granola bars, etc.) But, in my defense, I have always tried to teach my kids the rule of "Everything in moderation" and they know they can hit the pantry for a snack, but if they are still hungry, they should eat an apple, or have some veggies, all of which I also keep on hand. I've worked hard to teach them portion control and to only eat when you are truly hungry. No eating out of boredom.
My question is in regards to the new school lunch programs that I am having a hard time understanding. The school that my children attend has a vending machine in the hallway. I always try to make sure they have a little money to get something for the bus ride home (almost 20 miles) if they are hungry at the end of the day. When I was in the school last week, I noticed that the vending machines offer different juices and sports drinks along with pop and healthy choices like raisins and mixed nuts along with candy and pop tarts. Given how my children have been taught to eat, I really don't have a problem with these choices.
The problem I'm having is with the school lunch program. Since school started, my kids have come home with a complaint about lunch on a regular basis. Their favorite lunch of all time has always been the French Dip...this year, though, they are no longer allowed to have au jus or cheese sauce to dip in. They now serve hamburgers, but the kids can't have cheeseburgers because the cheese is "unhealthy". They no longer serve SOUP (which when made properly, in my opinion, is one of the healthiest foods around) because it has to much salt in it! But, twice since school started, they have served NACHOS for lunch. How is that a healthy choice?
I understand that, as a country, we are trying to combat obesity, but I just don't see deprivation as a solution. Why are we not teaching our children that they can, and should, eat what they are hungry for...just don't eat unhealthy portions of what they are hungry for?
Maybe I don't understand because my entire family is blessed with an unusually high metabolism, and that is why we can eat the way we do. Maybe it's because, given our lifestyle and the fact that we work off the calories we consume (it's not unusual for us to put in 15 hour days) we don't have to worry about being over-weight because we burn what we put in?
I'm just trying to find the reason the school is making lunch so unappealing? Can someone explain to me what I'm missing?

Thank you for your thoughts,

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So What Happened?

hmmmm...I do understand the cost angle. And yes, I will admit that my children are on the reduced meal program which is why I don't send a lunch with them. If someone wants to think I'm taking advantage of the system, they would be wrong. It's difficult to raise a family on under $20,000 a year; take it from someone who knows. That being said, I still can't understand offering pop, but taking away soup, feeding the kids nachos, but telling them they can't have cheese on their hamburgers, all under the guise of "health". I guess I thought the idea was to get food into their stomachs, food they would actually eat, so that they have the energy it takes to finish their school day. I apologize if my idea was off the mark....

I guess I wasn't specific question was "Why are we not teaching our children that they can, and should, eat what they are hungry for...just don't eat unhealthy portions of what they are hungry for?" Is that not what we should all be striving for? Healthy eating habits? I wasn't asking if I should send a bag lunch, that's really not an option for my family, our grocery budget is already stretched to capacity. I also wasn't asking about snacks for the bus-ride, I mentioned that I have taught my children to eat healthy portions and they rarely go to the vending machine. They sometimes get something to hold them over, sometimes they make a healthy choice and sometimes they get a pop-tart. I mentioned that I don't have a problem with that. And to the person that finds it odd that I would be criticizing the lunch program when I am benefitting from it in the form of reduced price lunch? Really? My children are coming home hungry because the school lunches are terrible and so they don't eat as much as they should or need. That totally defeats the purpose of what they are trying to accomplish with the reduced and free lunch programs, which is making sure that all kids get something to eat every day. If the majority of the lunches end up in the garbage, isn't that too, just a huge waste of money?

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answers from San Francisco on

I can one up you - they serve nachos, but if I put a bag of chips in their lunch, the teacher takes them and throws them away! Now how does that work?

I have sent a letter to the school advising them that they are NOT to touch my GDs food. They are not her parent/guardian and they are not doctors or nutritionists and they have NO RIGHT to touch her food. I told them if they took her food I would have them arrested for theft. After all, they are taking something from her immediate presence with the intent to permanently deprive her of it. That's the definition of theft.

I really have no idea where these teachers and schools think they have the right to deprive a child of food sent to school with the child by the parent. They really overstep their boundaries.

Yet ANOTHER reason I DO NOT LIKE teachers!

7 moms found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

I have absolute distain for the school lunch programs, my response ... bag my son's meals for the day.

I send my son to school with breakfast (on top of the breakfast we eat at home) because the school supplies "breakfast" in class daily. I send my son to school with lunch because Nachos & Mozzarella Sticks are not lunch. I transport my son and we live close to school so he eats a snack or finishes his lunch at home after school.

The High School has vending machines that only offer DIET options of soda, tea, juice etc.

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answers from Iowa City on

Well, weight is only one part of being healthy. A person can have sky high cholesterol, for one example, and have a normal BMI.

I think most people will agree that we should be eating a healthy, whole food snack first and then the unhealthy, manufactured snack on occasion if we wish.

The goals of the updated lunch program are:

Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week;

Substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods;

Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;

Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size; and

Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

Since 1/4 cup of cheese sauce can add 110 calories and 4g of saturated fat I can see why whoever makes up the menus would cut this out to fit the new requirements.

While my daughter's school lunches are not always the greatest, I think that most of the students do find them decent enough. Today they are serving whole grain cheese pizza, peas, carrots, a chocolate chip cookie, and pears. They always offer an alternate main dish and assorted fresh fruits and veggies. And, of course, milk.

Basically, since the school is providing the food, they are going to try to provide something a bit healthier than they previously provided. I see nothing wrong or unappealing with that.

9 moms found this helpful


answers from Seattle on

There are two reasons why school lunches suck.

First of all there is cost. Fresh veggies to properly prepare a soup cost more that the salty dishwater they used to serve or the bag of corn chips for nachos they replaced that with. Only a small percentage of kids actually pay for their lunch, we live in a relatively affluent suburb and even here over 50% of kids qualify for free lunch.

Second is ignorance. Only a small portion of school districts actually employ a qualified nutritionist (AKA a person with an advanced degree in nutrition) to plan out the menus. Often they work of pre-made menus that have existed for decades and they just make little updates "bandaids" when requirements change. What to reduce the salt content of the French Dip.. just leave out the dipping sauce instead of changing the recipe. Reduce the calories and fat content of the burgers.. easy: just leave out the processed cheese instead of reformulating the patties and opting for real cheese.

There are some school districts that are very successful, have qualified people doing the menu planning and purchasing and offer an amazing school lunch for the same money that gets most kids a crappy lunch. It can be done, but you have to have people wanting it and being dedicated about it.

Your best bet: pack lunch.
Good luck.

7 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

ETA: A jar of peanut butter & a bag of apples might go a long way with yiur grocery budget. So might a second job. Thing is--it IS what it IS. YOU need to work with or change YOUR part of the equation. Sorry you didn't like my answer. At the end if the day, we can talk the talk or walk the walk. Time to get walking!

School lunches are cheap.
Always have been.
Ours made the switch (at least) to all whole train breads, rolls, etched.
Middle school drink machine has water, juice, Gatorade.
It's all about the dollar. ( That's why you can afford Little Debbues--lots cheaper than Harvest Crisp Apples )
If I were in your shoes, and depended on the free school linch to feed my kid/s, I'd concentrate on the meals I could control: breakfast & dinner.
Oh--and I'd PACK a snack for the way home. :)

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Portland on

"I understand that, as a country, we are trying to combat obesity, but I just don't see deprivation as a solution. Why are we not teaching our children that they can, and should, eat what they are hungry for...just don't eat unhealthy portions of what they are hungry for? "

It's a nice idea, Jazzy, however, I don't know that most kids have enough self-regulation or control to stick to 'just one'. It also sounds like you are ensuring that your kids get a lot of physical activities, which is great. The fact of the matter is that schools often have to make their decisions with the lowest common denominator in mind. MOST kids I know do not have the discretion and self-regulation to have just one of something. Many kids go home and sit on their butts for the rest of the day. Public health is a very real issue. And so is the cost of making lunches.

I agree, from what you posted, that it *is* confusing. Why would they offer soda but worry about the salt content of soup? Why not put pressure on the manufacturer to make a low-sodium soup-- or does it cost more? I have to wonder if this is budget cuts disguised as healthier choices. That slice of cheese on the burger-- may be pennies per slice, but it adds up. The same with the au jus or cheese sauce. Yes, those new choices are healthier, however, I would wonder if the budget is behind some of those choices. Who knows? (ETA: Andrea L explained this very well)

I took matters into my own hands and pack a lunch for Kiddo every day. This way, I know what he's eating and how much.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Wausau on

For the past several years, I've helped people get their finances in order. When you say you can't afford to pack lunches, it is something I've heard many times. It would be easier if I could actually show you in person, but I'll just have to use words.

You can pack a lunch for the same or less cost as the Reduced hot lunch price. The money you send for vending machine snacks would likely cover the cost of packing a lunch *and* a bringing snack from home. You can make 2-4 lunches for the cost of a bag of name-brand chips.

Counting breakfast, lunch and dinner, there are 21 basic meals in a week. If kids feel *deprived* because they are given limited options at school for 5 of those 21 meals then there is indeed a problem, but it isn't the school lunch.

The problem is that kids have been taught to fill up on starchy, sweet and salty things. Of course they prefer it if given the choice! My own kids sure do.

I'm boggled that Gamma G calls ham, sweet potato, carrots and pineapple an "appalling" lunch for a kid but has no problem with KFC food, which is delicious, but pure junk. If her granddaughter would have eaten the rest of her (good, healthy) lunch, she would not have been hungry.

Gamma mentioned getting free school lunch due to low income. I am not at all opposed to free and reduced lunches. I think it is a great program for families. But the cost of *one* KFC meal can make an entire week's worth of packed lunches for a child. Food she could be certain the kid would eat.

The problem isn't what the school was offering, the problem is the disconnect people have with responsibility. It is the job of the parent/guardian to feed their kid, or to see that their kid is fed. If the kid doesn't like school lunch, the solution is to provide the lunch from home, not to get mad that the school isn't catering to their picky eater.

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answers from Austin on

As a state, we are no longer allowed to sell the items you mentioned in our schools..even for parties.. It is a blessing and a curse.. Even our carnivals,football stadiums are supposed to follow the state standards.

If you want change, you have to rattle some office doors.

Since you are on a tight budget, I suggest you have snack items for your children to choose from at home for the afternoon bus rides.

Our daughter always knew, "we do not purchase snacks, we bring them from home.."

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Norfolk on

If you have access to so much red meat, how about you make some beef jerky from some of it so your kids can take it to school for a snack?
Search Google for recipes - there are many.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

If you don't like the offerings, brown bag their lunch.

ETA: We had to eat school lunch, too, for budget reasons. It simply won't be as healthy as you hope it will be. It will be food and you can discuss with your children how to make the most of the offerings provided.

You can also join the PTA and discuss it with them and see if anyone else shares your concerns. My DD's elementary school started a garden, so in the right season the children also eat food grown on the property. This was in part to teach urban kids about food and gardening and in part for health.

And even if you don't send them a full lunch, you might instead send them with a snack they can eat on the bus that you buy on sale/in bulk at home. I bet you can find granola bars or healthy snacks for less than the cost of the ones in the vending machine.

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answers from Washington DC on

Yarrmatey has an excellent response and she clearly knows how her school lunch program works and why it has made certain changes. Go to your own school district's web site and look for the same types of information, which may help you understand the substitutions your family dislikes. There really are reasons for most of those changes, too, and some are about health while others are about costs and even about the ways things are served up.. And while it bugs you and your kids, remember, it's worth a shrug and not much more. They are not being "deprived." Deprivation would mean kids not getting enough food, or enough food that is nutritious. It's not to your kids' tastes, that's all, but they are fortunate to have a home with good food consistently provided. Around here there are kids who depend on school lunches and school breakfasts for most of their nutritional needs. Your kids don't have to depend on that, which is great. If they arent' eating enough they will have a hard time concentrating, but you have the option of sending lunches they will eat -- not an option that many families have.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Salt Lake City on

The school system is not really making these choices based on how healthy the food is. Nachos, but not soup? How are hamburgers an improvement over a french dip sandwich, healthwise? Also, how is cheese on a burger unhealthy if they serve nachos, probably with that awful fake orange "cheese"? I wonder if they are trying to cut costs by not preparing food that takes time (and therefore required them to pay someone for the time it takes to make it)? Have they recently switched from food being prepared at school to food being brought in from a central kitchen or contractor (which means they can only serve things that are easy to transport and reheat)? The price of ingredients may also figure in to the changes.

They are using the "healthy" angle to try to cover up whatever is the real reason for the decisions they're making.

Now, the question is, what are you going to do about it, mama? It's easy to get opinions on a forum such as this. But unless you're willing to spend some time talking to the right people in the school district, nothing is going to change. It may be that nothing will change anyway, but you might end up being pleasantly surprised. When my kids were in a brick-and-mortar school, we successfully lobbied the district for permission to start our own lunch program. We were still under the federal lunch program, so our free and reduced lunch kids were not impacted. The regular price of lunch did go up, but it was still within reason. We were able to offer much healthier meals, cooked on-site, and so good that parents who could actually came to the school to buy the school lunch and eat with their kids. How cool is that?

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answers from Chicago on

As a whole, I do not think schools offer enough "truly good food" with that said.

They use canned corn, not frozen or fresh (I get that it is a cost issue). But I really do not find all the extra sodium in canned vegetables a good source of viatmins.

My son is gluetn free, so we will not be doing the school lunch program. I will continue to send him the fresh fruit and veggies with a protien. I try to look at the day as a whole for meals for him. He also eats more for breakfast and lunch. I try to get in him what I can when I can. I try to limit candy and procssed foods to 1 treat a day.

I can not eat soup out at a restaurant anymore it is too salty for me. The sodium in canned soup is disgusting. Since my son is Gluten free, I make all soup home made.. huge difference. So I can see that one.

Healthy is only healthy if prepared properly.. unfortunatly processed food wins when feeding a large group.

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answers from New York on

Most school have gotten rid of soda and candy vending machines because of parent protest. The parents in your community have the power to push the schools to make changes.

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answers from Tampa on

I really do understand that some of the choices seem to be lacking in sense. I do not know how they plan the menus, but I am pretty sure that they have Federal nutrition guidelines that must be met. They have to do a lot with a small amount of money per child.

I don't always like all of the choices either, but I figure that the nutrition averages out with what I feed them at home. I would NEVER begrudge a meal to a child...ever.... However, I do find it odd that you would be criticizing the lunch program when you are benefitting from it in the form of reduced price lunch. The menu goes out ahead of time for my children's school. If it bothers you that badly, then send a lunch for them on the days when you think the choices are not healthy enough. If you are not able to do that, then you should probably be grateful that the Program exists for your children.

My guess is that complaining to the administrators of the school will get you nowhere. As long as they are following the established guidelines, they are not obligated to change anything.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Denver on

I'm with you- it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. But I really do think it comes down to money. I feel like school districts really are trying their best, but once they get through the convoluted red tape, etc., they are left with exactly what you describe.

Here's an interesting flip side. My daughter goes to a private school, that has the resources to do things very differently. So when polled, an overwhelming number of parents insisted that they want healthy school lunches and that their kids should have only healthy food available. We were able to bring in lunches from Whole Foods- super healthy stuff, that I thought was great. But over time, the kids complained to their parents that they didn't like it, so the parents stopped ordering it. They asked for things that the kids would eat, so they canceled the Whole Foods program and now bring in pizza, Subway, etc. It was ridiculous.

So similar to your case, the school opts for these healthier things, but the result is that the kids leave either hungry because they didn't get enough or hungry because they hated it and threw it away. And then as you also point out, they probably binge on junk just because they are starving- they don't learn portion control.

It's a difficult thing all around, I agree with you. Until there is less red tape and more school funding, I think it will not get a ton better.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from New York on

Remember that kids need the energy and nutrition of breakfast+lunch to get through the school day and homework. In some ways, breakfast and lunch are more important meals for kids than dinner.

You can't control what other kids do, but you can help your own kids. You mention "lunches ending up in the garbage" - are YOUR kids throwing out their school lunches?

My advice - your kids need to eat lunch. If they insist on throwing the school food into the garbage, you should DEFINITELY find a way to pack lunch that they will eat. Scale back on dinner if you need to...use that money (and/or some of that food) to make lunch.

It's only the beginning of the school year...your kids have a difficult year ahead if they keep up this not-enough-lunch-eating pattern.

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answers from Chicago on

Most states have to follow federal guidelines of what constitutes a nutritious meal with appropriate portion sizes for the ages of the kids. They are required to offer a few entrees, milk or juice, fresh fruits and vegetables.

I know kids in our school district are encouraged to take 5 out of 5 items (milk, entree, two veggies and a fruit or two fruits and a veggie). The school gets reimbursed from the state for each complete meal it serves. A lot of that food does end up in the garbage, or they give the fruit to the janitor. But the school gets its money and that's what is important to the school.

The menu planning is left up to the catering company. They comply with federal guidelines of nutrition. Unfortunately, once they get about 8 weeks' worth of menus, they don't change them. They just rotate the items so each month is a little different from the last. Sucks to be a picky eater on the free or reduced lunch program! Although, I cannot feel sorry for any kid that refuses to eat vegetables but then complains that they are still hungry. Too bad, so sad.

I know you weren't looking for comments on the after school snack thing, but if you have apples or snacky stuff at home, why can't you put that in the kids' backpacks for the ride home on the bus? It would save you some money.



answers from Washington DC on

That does not make sense.
However, you could try talking to the cafeteria manager. Our school saw a big menu shift, not only towards healthy items, but also in the ethnic background of items. More italian and mexican based foods pushed out more typical American based foods. The reason? They held a free 'sampling' in the spring to get ideas for the new year's menu, with 600+ participants and items were the result.



answers from Anchorage on

Most schools don't have enough money, and most the kids who take hot lunch at school do so because they are on the free or reduced lunch program. I am thankful for that program because without it so many kids would go hungry, but feeding so many on so little money does not make it easy to have the best choices. I personally don't care for the food they serve so I send my kids with cold lunch everyday.

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