Are Healthy School Lunches Working?

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Changes to the National School Lunch Program have put more fruits, veggies, and whole grains on your plate. But are these meals really making students healthier?

YES: The program is teaching us healthy habits. 

I’m not going to lie: My cafeteria’s transition from cheesy nachos to whole grains and veggies took some getting used to. But thanks to some creativity from the lunchroom staff, my classmates and I have opened our minds (and mouths) to healthy alternatives, like whole-wheat pizza and turkey chef salads—and research shows we’re not alone. 

One Harvard study found that since the new nutrition guidelines went into effect, students have been loading their trays with more fruits and vegetables—a first step toward developing healthy habits that will last well beyond our academic years.  

To people who say we have the right to choose junk food for lunch, I say: How hypocritical would it be for schools to preach the benefits of nutrition, then serve unhealthy food in the cafeteria? Students deserve balanced meals that will enable our minds and bodies to power through our busy days—not a sugar rush that won’t last beyond the lunch period.

— Julia Tofan, a high school senior in Connecticut

No: Schools don't make healthy food appetizing enough. 

The new nutrition standards may aim to make students better eaters, but in reality, the healthy food many schools are serving isn’t appetizing enough to sell us on the benefits of nutritious meals. No kid wants slimy, foul-smelling spinach!

Until cafeterias start making their new offerings look and taste appealing enough for kids to choose them at will, students will resort to packing their own lunches, or the bland vegetables and mushy fruit will just end up in the trash. Reports show that some schools have even dropped out of the program because they lost so much money to food waste.

There’s no doubt that something needs to be done to improve the eating habits of our generation, but forcing gross health foods on us during lunch just isn’t going to work. Here’s a better idea: Hold schools to stringent flavor standards, in addition to the existing nutrition requirements. When taste-test time rolls around, I’ll be the first to sign up!

— Evan Millerick, a high school junior in Texas

3 Fast Facts

1. The United States Department of Agriculture established new school nutrition guidelines in 2010.

2. Since these standards have taken effect, the overall nutritional quality of student meals has increased by 29 percent, according to one recent study.

3. Students are choosing healthier food—but they’re still throwing away 60 percent of the vegetables and 40 percent of the fruits on their trays, says Harvard University research. 

Sources: 1. United States Department of Agriculture, 2015. 2. JAMA Pediatrics, 2016. 3. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2014

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