Healthier School Lunches

Amy Dunkin

Cathy Arnst has been a wonderful advocate for good nutrition on this blog. Now I'd like to add my two cents to the discussion.

What got me going is that some concerned parents at our elementary school are forming a committee to consider healthier choices for our hot lunch program. Our options are limited by virtue of the fact that we don't have a kitchen on premises and have to bring in food from outside vendors. Still, we can do a lot better. I'd give the program a C- at best.

Here's the menu: Monday is pizza day; Tuesday, cheeseburgers; Wednesday, chicken fingers; Thursday, grilled cheese; Friday, pasta. Low-fat milk, chocolate milk, and water are always available. Snacks vary from apples to Jello to pudding cups.

Setting aside the question of whether these are even the wisest selections--and I don't think they are--it doesn't take weeks of analysis to find ways to make immediate improvements.

Let's start with the chicken fingers. Yes, they're made by a local deli with real chicken breast meat, not reconstituted trimmings (a la Chicken McNuggets.) But they're still fried. Is it so hard to put them in the oven and bake them?

The grilled cheese: I don't know what kind of cheese they're using, but even if it's real American cheese (not processed cheese food,) it's probably too salty and high in fat. How about picking a low-salt, low-fat variety, and making sure that it's served on high-fiber whole grain bread, not worthless white.

The pasta: The kids get a choice of butter or tomato sauce. But I was amazed to learn that they have no cheese to sprinkle on top if they want it. Where's the protein in this meal? At home my son always eats plain pasta with parmesan and mozzarella cheese. Surely, the school could offer this simple, more nutritious lunch.

The milk: Given a choice between plain milk and liquid brown-colored sugar, what do you think most kids would pick? Chocolate milk shouldn't be an option.

Those are just some quick fixes. Thinking a bit more outside the box, I included the following thoughts in an email I sent to the head of the new lunch committee:

We might think about growing vegetables behind the school in the spring and fall, then having the kids pick them and eat them at lunch. Schools that have tried this have found that children are more likely to eat healthy foods that they grow or make themselves. Maybe this project could be integrated into the science curriculum. Another idea along those lines would be to have classes take trips to local apple orchards in the fall. We grow some of the best apples in the world in New York State, so why not take advantage of that? I'm sure the kids could fill many bushels of delicious Macoun, Empire, and Macintosh apples that could be doled out at lunch over many weeks.

I can think of many more suggestions, but I'm saving them for the first meeting of the committee next Tuesday.

By the way, I was heartened to read today that Walt Disney Co. will no longer allow its characters to be used in marketing junk food. That means no more Mickey Mouse toys in McDonald's Happy Meals or Lightning McQueen pictures on Apple Jacks cereal boxes.

Snow White broccoli and Lion King whole wheat wagon wheels, anyone?