10 Reasons to Ignore School Lunch Haters and Support #RealSchoolFood

By Dayle Hayes, MS, RD

To all the mommy bloggers, food celebrities, academic researchers, restaurant chains and media channels who want to blame School Lunch for the ills of the US food system (while promoting their own products, endorsements and programs), it’s time to STOP. Trying to refute your inaccurate claims, staged photos, out-date sound bites and negative descriptions is a waste of precious time we could be working together to support #RealSchoolFood for real hungry kids all across America. If you really want to improve school meals, here are 10 effective ways to support the hard-working school nutrition HEROES who are reshaping local and national food systems, teaching kids about where food comes from, and feeding millions of children their best meals of the day – every day – in thousands of schools across our country.

#1: Please get some real photos of #RealSchoolFood. Your staged, stock and decades-old examples do a terrible disservice to the dedicated chefs and cooks who offer gorgeous cafeteria lines, produce bars and grab-n-go options to students every day. Need help finding photos? We’ve got your back with thousands of photos on Facebook and PinterestTray Talk also features #RealSchoolFood from hundreds of districts. These gorgeous salads are from Polk County Schools in Florida.

Polk Salads

New Chopped Salads on the menu this Fall! Asian Chicken and Buffalo Chicken. Polk School Nutrition, Polk County, Florida

#2: Please move on from ‘ketchup is a vegetable.’ Seriously people, check your facts. This was a stupid proposal in 1981 which never made it into a regulation. Before you complain, learn the details of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010. There are specific requirements for five different vegetable sub-groups, including Red-Orange. This is how schools are promoting colorful produce and #RealSchoolFood to students all across Tennessee this fall.

These gorgeous banners, shown here by Chelsea Cordes, RDN, in Shelby County Schools, are a healthy collaboration between the Department of Education and the Governor’s Foundation for a Healthy Tennessee.

#3: Please read the research comparing school lunch to lunches brought from home. Studies from Baylor (TX), Tufts (MA) and Virginia Tech (VA) confirm that lunches brought from home rarely meet the tough nutrition standards now required in all USDA school meals programs. Many contained sugary drinks and snack foods that cannot be sold as #RealSchoolFood.

A Tufts study published Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed lunches brought from home had lots of packaged food and sugary drinks

A Tufts study published Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed lunches brought from home had lots of packaged food and sugary drinks

#4: Please dig deeper into the causes of food waste in schools. Kids throw away perfectly picked organic oranges and bento box baby bananas with cute notes written on them – just like they throw away school lunch items. Two of the best solutions to reducing food waste in cafeterias work for #RealSchoolFood and lunches brought from home: Recess Before Lunch and Longer Lunch Periods

#5: Please recognize that school nutrition professionals frequently do not have needed administrative support. School nutrition heroes have a tough balancing act with  complex government regulations, limited budgets and limited input into school schedules that affect recess options and the length of lunch periods. Like you, they care deeply about feeding children well – and are trying to do the best they can with what they have. Maybe you can work together on a grant for a salad bar or school garden? Many of the #RealSchoolFood veggies served in Kalispell, Montana, schools come directly from the school garden.

Kalispell, Montana, Schools feature greens grown at school. A fabulous director and FoodCorps Montana work together to grow ‪#‎SchoolGardens‬, serve ‪#‎RealSchoolFood‬ and nourish healthy eating habits.

Kalispell, Montana, Schools feature greens grown at school. A fabulous director and FoodCorps Montana work together to grow ‪#‎SchoolGardens‬, serve ‪#‎RealSchoolFood‬ and nourish healthy eating habits.

#6: Please talk WITH rather than AT school nutrition directors. Arrange a friendly meeting with your local nutrition director. Find out about their everyday challenges and what changes they would make if they could – maybe new equipment or more local foods. Find out how you can work together to do what’s best for kids. If you look for common ground, you are likely to find it. Believe every school should have a school garden? Get out there and help a school grow one for #RealSchoolFood to be served in your district. The amazing Waterford Edible Schoolyard has dozens of amazing volunteers, especially during the busy summer months.

THANKS to the Waterford Edible Schoolyard: "72 pounds delivered to the kitchen today - bringing our total to 175+ lbs since June! The peas are in with a vengeance , tomatos are starting to ripen, and we can't seem to pick the cucumber and zucchini fast enough smile emoticon."

THANKS to the Waterford Edible Schoolyard: “72 pounds delivered to the kitchen today – bringing our total to 175+ lbs since June! The peas are in with a vengeance, tomatoes are starting to ripen, and we can’t seem to pick the cucumber and zucchini fast enough smile emoticon.”

#7: Please be realistic because nutrition perfection is just not possible on $1.50-1.75 per meal. That’s how much the average school district has to spend directly on food. While meal prices and USDA reimbursement rates provide more money, that also goes to pay for labor, equipment and overhead costs. If you want all organic, GMO-free, clean-label, local, scratch-cooked meals, you are going to have to help schools lobby local, state and federal decisions makers to provide more money for school meals. 2015 is a critical year for child nutrition and childhood food insecurity. This fall Congress will reauthorize funding for the critical local programs that support healthy children, schools and communities, including School Breakfast Programs, National School Lunch Programs, WIC Programs and Farm to School Programs. 2015 is a time to advocate for fresh, local, delicious #RealSchoolFood rather than pointing fingers and telling families “avoid school lunch like the plague.” THIS is #RealSchoolFood lunch in Greenville, South Carolina.

On August 20, 2015, Greenville County Schools students will have the option to choose from Turkey Pot Roast with a fresh baked roll, Scratch-made Mac-N-Cheese, a Fresh Fruit and Veggie Bar with four options of fresh fruit and four options of steamed vegetables, and ice cold milk!

On August 20, 2015, Greenville County Schools students will have the option to choose from Turkey Pot Roast with a fresh baked roll, Scratch-made Mac-N-Cheese, a Fresh Fruit and Veggie Bar with four options of fresh fruit and four options of steamed vegetables, and ice cold milk!

#8: Please eat a #RealSchoolFood lunch. Send a message with your location to SchoolMealsThatRock@gmail.com and I’ll recommend a #RealSchoolFood cafeteria nearby you can enjoy hot lunch or a grab-and-go salad like these from Provo School District, Provo, Utah.

Grab n Go Salads at the secondary level and Chef Salads at the elementary level. First day choices first day delicious!

Grab n Go Salads at the secondary level and Chef Salads at the elementary level. First day choices first day delicious!

#9: Please consider the consequences of your criticisms. Be respectful and ditch blanket descriptions of school food like “hideous piles of indistinguishable vegetables” and “avoid like the plague.” When you use negative and judgmental language, it makes parents feel badly about letting their children eat at school, even if they can’t afford to pack a meal from home. Dedicated school nutrition heroes deserve your respect and thanks for all their training and hard work to feed kids #RealSchoolFood every day. This is why they do it – smiling face of hungry students, like this girl in Bradley County Schools, Cleveland, Tennessee.

North Lee Elementary Pre-K. Beautiful, healthy tray for smiling faces.

North Lee Elementary Pre-K. Beautiful, healthy tray for smiling faces.

#10: Please be transparent about the companies who sponsor your post or blog or program. If your blog ends with photos of branded food products and lunch boxes, please indicate if they are sponsors or advertisers. I do consulting work for a variety of agricultural groups and a few companies, which are all disclosed below. Not a single one of them supported this post or provided input in any way.

  • Board Member/Advisory Panel
    • American Association of School Administrators (AASA) Breakfast Council
    • Kellogg’s Breakfast Council
  • Consultant
    • US Department of Agriculture and Team Nutrition Program
    • Multiple state departments of education and agriculture
    • California Walnut Commission
    • The Mushroom Council
    • Cherry Marketing Institute
    • American Egg Board
    • CLIF bar
    • Chobani Yogurt
    • Bush Beans
  • Speakers Bureau
    • National Dairy Council and state/regional dairy councils
    • National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and state beef councils

26 thoughts on “10 Reasons to Ignore School Lunch Haters and Support #RealSchoolFood

  1. extending lunch from 20 to 30 minutes! My kids dream of a 20 minute lunch. They get 7-12 minutes to eat (because the cafeteria is too small to fit all the kids and they need to move out for the next group), and then they go out for recess for the remaining 13-8 minutes. The school justifies this by telling parents that kids CAN have the whole 20 minutes to eat, but they are yelled to finished, and then sent to the table where they put the misbehaving kids so they can finish while other classes are brought in.😦 I’ve been asking to have this changed now for 11 years.

  2. More time for lunch! More time and help to open all the packaging on the food. The school district serves nutritious food but the kids don’t have the time or wherewithal to eat it so they just open and eat what they like the best and throw away the rest so they can go outside. Makes me sad.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Adam. These #RealSchoolPhotos were taken to train staff on new salads. Thanks to training, students will get salads just like this in Polk County Nutrition this year. Follow their FB page (www.facebook.com/pages/Polk-School-Nutrition/265337106837179) and I guarantee you will see delicious #RealSchoolFood regularly. Follow my FB page (www.facebook.com/SchoolMealsThatRock) and I guarantee that you can see delicious #RealSchoolSalads today. Want off the line photos of grab-and-go salads? Visit my Pinterest board on Grab and Go Meals That Rock (www.pinterest.com/schoolmealsrock/grab-n-go-meals-rock-in-school-meals/). Take a look at those links and let me know what you think. Best, Dayle

      • Dayle,
        Perhaps I am just confused… How are we any better than the “mommy bloggers, food celebrities, academic researchers, restaurant chains and media channels” for whom the rules were written, if we are guilty of the same thing? If the staged/stock photos portray school food in a positive light.. is it no longer a disservice?

        Really the comment was tongue-in-cheek and I am on the same page with you, but in the issue of fairness I just can’t get over breaking Rule #1 directly below said rule.

        Cheers,
        Adam Russo

      • Thanks Adam! I do understand your point. Perhaps you can help me come up with a better word than STAGED. By using it, I mean using foods that have never been served in a real school (the infamous school lunches around the globe). I consider trays made up from options available on a serving line or salad bar to be #RealSchoolFood … even though they are not always what a student/customer would put on a tray and eat. Your thoughts? Better terminology? Thanks for the discussion! Dayle

  3. While the school lunches may look like that in some places, the sad reality is that they don’t in most places. Try visiting Muskegon Michigan and some of the schools there. How about a few schools in Virginia? And to talk about what parents pack in the lunches, has anyone ever stopped to think that maybe they are packing all that they can afford to pack? School lunches are costly and if you make just a little bit too much you don’t qualify for the free meals or reduced costs. When your income is low, the foods you can afford are not the highest of quality unfortunately. Lets face it… buying fruits, salad makings, healthy items, are more costly than high carb laden foods and crap that does not belong in our bodies. What we should be doing is protesting the high cost of healthy items and working on finding a more affordable way to feed everyone healthy. That and give those kids more time to eat! I would much rather see my kids coming home a half hour later knowing that they got an extra ten to twenty minutes to eat.

  4. Great article! These ideas like recess before and longer times are doable, they can be worked out. School nutrition professionals work hard day after day to feed the children good and good for them meals daily. Writing state and federal decision makers to give more funding. It’s amazing the wonderful meals served daily for the monies given. I’m proud to be a school nutrition professional. I am sharing this. Thanks

  5. Thank you, thank you. Finally someone writes an article on school lunch and says the truth. I am Child Nutrition Director and my staff has to deal with the negative comments all the time. I call my staff the miracle workers because they put all of their heart and dedication to making those meals because they love those kids. I am going to share this with them so they know that someone out there is telling the truth about school lunch.

  6. Pingback: 10 Reasons to Ignore School Lunch Haters and Support #RealSchoolFood - Taher, Inc. Food Service

  7. Great post Dayle. While I have shared ideas for schools that do not have a school lunch program [private schools in my area] there are so many schools making AMAZING meals for students in Metro Detroit. I love this list— and couldn’t agree more with having more time to eat. It takes me toddler about 35 minutes to eat a meal. Kids can’t eat in 10 minutes or less!

  8. Dayle Hayes, I think I love you. I’m a cafeteria manager in a Pico Rivera middle school. I absolutely love my job. There can’t possibly be anything more enjoyable than interacting with my kids on a daily basis. Yes, my kids. I’ve been lunchlady to most of them since they first started school. I’ve watched their older siblings move on to the high school and hope that I’m still here when their younger siblings move up. It breaks my heart to see our scratch cooking being slowly pushed off of our menus. If it was in our budget, I’m sure we would already be central kitchen. Food Service gets zero supprot from administration and in fact, is hindered by them. People who have no idea what food service consists of are the ones who make the rules. Our Wellness Policy is not being followed. Donut sales during recess are being advertised on school websites, teachers are selling uncompliant snacks out of their classrooms. Its just too much to list it all. None of this is done in secret, but none of it is addressed. Yet, Food Services is bashed constantly. I don’t think parents have any idea how much crap the ASB’s or PTO’s are selling their children. Forgive me for going on as I have. Your article was like a breathe of fresh air on a subject that most people are very jaded about. Thank you for your article and for letting me ramble. Food Services needs support from administration not to be hindered by them. Parents to question their onsite administrators about the snacks being sold to their children. It makes no difference what Food Services is serving the kids, if they’re buying donuts and Sunny D from their teachers. Thank you again.

  9. Pingback: A Positive Take on School Lunches | FOOD, FACTS and FADS

    • THANKS so much for linking to School Meals That Rock! We absolutely agree that … “Along with the pretty pictures should come nutrition education at the earliest ages about where their food comes from and the reasons they should eat healthy foods.” Nice to be connected!

  10. Pingback: Get the Lowdown on Back-to-School Nutrition | Sound Bites RD

  11. I agree with the longer lunch period. It would allow students to take time to finish their entire meal and make sure that they are not throwing away important parts of their nutrition that they need.

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