Some Very Real Reasons Why Kids May Be Hungry at School – and What We Can Do About It: Part 1 of 3

I’ve watched the videos from the hungry teen athletes in Kansas and Jon Stewart’s amusing Starved By the Bell segment. I’ve read about the boycotts and heard dedicated school nutrition professionals talk seriously about getting their high schools out of the National School Lunch Program.

I’m very sorry that meals for kids at school are once again fodder for YouTube videos and late night TV. I’m even sorrier that school nutrition has become a political football like so many other issues. I am sorriest for the thousands of school nutrition heroes who have been trying to make the 2012 USDA Nutrition Standards work and the millions of low-income children who reply on schools cafeterias to provide their best meals of the day.

There are some very real reasons why students, especially teens, may be hungry during the school day. If everyone focused on finding real solutions, we could work together to benefit all students – improving their nutrition, health and academic performance. Here are two of the very real reasons that kids may be hungry at school – stay tuned for more reasons in parts 2 and 3.

Greek Pizza with hummus on whole grain crust, Johnston, Rhode Island, High School

Reason #1: Kids, especially teens, are hungry because they don’t eat breakfast.

SOLUTION: Breakfast every day for every student

According to the 2011 Kellogg’ Breakfast in America Survey, breakfast eating dips as kids grow older; 77 percent of young children eat breakfast every day, but this falls to 50 percent in the middle-school years and 36 percent among high school students. If you don’t eat breakfast, the new calorie ranges may not be enough to be both a breakfast and a lunch. And, more importantly, you will have found it hard (if not impossible) to concentrate and learn in your morning classes.

Schools need breakfast programs that are convenient for kids and practical for school food service. There are lots of successful models: Grab-and-Go breakfast options, like new kiosks planned for Medford (MA) schools, breakfast in the classroom being successfully implemented in districts coast to coast, and cafeteria breakfast bars with made-to-order breakfast burritos, as seen in my hometown of Billings, Montana.

Made-to-Order, Breakfast Burrito Bar, Senior High School, Billings, Montana

Reason #2: Most school schedule recess after lunch, so kids rush to get outside.

SOLUTION: Recess Before lunch

When kids are eager for recess, they often dump hunger-satisfying foods into the trash. It’s only nutrition WHEN they eat or drink, so we should maximize scheduling to get the food into the kids. Honestly, it’s not rocket science that children would be hungrier and thirstier when they have the chance to play first – and that exactly what schools report according to Starving for Recess, a 2011 District Administration article.

Scheduling Recess Before Lunch (RBL) isn’t rocket-science either and there are plenty of resources from Montana Team Nutrition to help schools with the process. RBL can even save money since many schools report significant decreases in garbage removal costs when students are active first, eating more food and drinking more milk afterward.

Recess Before Lunch Guide, Montana Team Nutrition (2008)

USDA New-trition Guidelines for School Meals: Business as usual – or whole new ballgame

On January 26, 2012, USDA released the long-awaited 2012 Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.  According to the website: “Through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by the First Lady and signed by President Obama, USDA is making the first major changes in school meals in 15 years, which will help us raise a healthier generation of children.”

As students head back-to-school meals in cafeterias across the nation, the new standards are generating lots of media buzz with headlines like Schools scrambling to serve up healthier lunch choices, More vegetables, higher prices coming to school cafeteria lunch lines this fall, and Some Cocke County students finding new school lunches hard to swallow. From these news stories, it’s clear that the new guidelines are, sadly, a new whole ballgame for some districts.

The really good news for hungry children, their families and educators is that many schools have been working towards the very same science-based standards for years, even decades. This is especially true for the 3,871 schools that have met the criteria for a HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC) award, a strategic component of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative. This impressive achievement is a strong indication of how committed school nutrition professionals are to offering students the healthiest meals possible:

“In February 2010, the First Lady and USDA challenged stakeholders to double the number of HUSSC schools within a year and add 1,000 schools per year for two years after that. We exceeded our first goal last June and this year we’ve again exceeded expectations. Not only have we surpassed our second year goal we’ve more than met our goal for June 2013 a year ahead of schedule!

How often does “ahead of schedule” happen in the real world!! Here are some of the key changes what will show up in some schools – and will be just business as usual in many other districts:


Schools are now required to serve a wide-variety of colorful vegetables each week. Additionally, in order for a lunch meal to be reimbursable, each tray will need to include at least ½ cup of fruits and/or vegetables. This will be easy in districts like Lake Stevens, Washington, where students make a “rainbow at the salad bar.”


Students must now be offered a fresh, frozen, dried, or canned (in juice) fruit for lunch. In the Montague, Michigan, School Food Service Department, they serve fruit choices daily on the lunch line. Michigan apples are so popular that Montague set a 2011 Guinness World Record for eating 9,329 apples at the same time.


As per the new standards, at least half of all grains served in school lunch must now be whole grain rich (starting in 2014 all grain products must be whole grain rich). In Douglas County Schools, Colorado, they made popular pizza smarter with a whole grain crust, roasted vegetables, and a balsamic glaze (chosen by a high school student panel).


Under new USDA guidance, schools must offer two varieties of milk: unflavored milk can be non-fat or 1%, while flavored milk must be non-fat. This milk policy has been the standard in Portland (Oregon) Public Schools Nutrition Services for more than a decade. As you can see, they also offer a colorful selection of produce!

Other mandated changes for school lunch meals include:

  • Calorie ranges for three grade groupings (K-5, 6-8, and 9-12)
  • Minimum and maximum servings per week for both grains and meat/meat alternates (cheese, beans, etc.) for each of the grade groupings

New School Meal Patterns: Do U Have 2 B a Magician?

Delighted to be in Denver for the School Nutrition Association’s 2012 Annual Nutrition Conference – where 6,000+ school food professionals come to taste new items, check out the latest equipment, and listen to the best speakers in the business. Like my colleagues from every state and several foreign countries, I am here to learn, learn, LEARN!

The focus of this meeting is quite clear: Everyone involved in school nutrition is eager (desperate might be a better word) for answers about the rollout of USDA’s 2012 Nutriton Standards for School Meals. The complexity of the meal pattern changes and the questions about students’ reactions can be summarized in a friend’s Tweet from the conference yesterday: “U dont have to b a ‪#dietitian‬ 2 meet the new school guidelines, u hav 2 b a magician”

Here are three “magic wands” that I’ll be looking for at the conference sessions and exhibits: (1) What products and recipes will meet the new meal pattern AND student taste preferences at the same time?

The Zesty Chipotle Chicken Flatbread tray pictured above meets the new meal pattern and fits well into current reimbursement levels. It has also been kid-tested in the Denver Public Schools. I tasted it last night – and loved it. But, many issues still remain in serving trays that meet the new meal pattens:

  • Chipotle (or flatbread for that matter) will work great in some parts of the county and fall flat in others. Where are the hundreds (maybe thousands) of recipe/meal options necessary to please critical students and fit the guidelines?
  • Some of the toughest new requirements are serious restrictions on grains (even whole grains) and meats (even lean ones). Were such restrictions necessary given the new calorie ranges for three age groups (K-5, 6-8 and 9-12)?

(2) What do we need to market/promote/inspire students and staff to ENJOY (in some cases) radically different school meals meals?

It’s pretty safe to say that the vast majority of US children are not currently following the USDA Nutrition Standards when eating at home or in restaurants. It’s going to take some serious marketing and promotion to get the beautiful new meals into kids rather than garbage cans.

  • The staff in Lake Stevens Washington did a FABULOUS job with their “Make a Rainbow at the Salad Bar” promotion. What else are schools doing effectively to motivate kids to enjoy foods they may never have seen before?
  • Marketing and promotion take time, resources, and expertise not always available in school nutrition programs. How are school training staff, finding resources, and collaborating to get the job done?

(3) What can we do create CAFETERIAS that provide positive, pleasant places for students to learn healthful eating habits?

The current “herd ’em in, herd ’em out” mentality in many school cafeterias is not an environment that encourages trying new items and enjoying a variety of flavors on your tray. One school lunch director told me that kids in her school have so little time to eat that “they are still grabbing things off trays while walking toward the trash cans.”

  • Since it’s only nutrition when they eat or drink it, we have to give more time and attention to school meal environments. With all the focus on WHAT is being served, we can not WHERE, WHEN, and HOW school meals are served. 
  • As long as these conditions are less than optimal, we will be feeding garbage cans not kids. I am deeply interested in WHAT schools are doing to address these issues.
STAY TUNED here and on FB SchoolMealsThatRock and Twitter SchoolMealsRock for everything that I learn here in Denver!!

New-utrition Standards for School Meals: Another critical piece of the “Healthy Kids Puzzle”

As a committed Action for Healthy Kids (AFHK) volunteer since the original 2002 Summit in Washington, DC, I was honored to write about the release of the long-awaited USDA Nutrition Standards for school breakfast and lunch on for the February issue of the AFHK Connections newsletter. This is a longer version of that article, which is no longer available one the AFHK site.

The first “re-do” of school meal patterns in many years is designed to align meals served in school cafeterias more closely with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The new patterns do this in several important ways:

  • Requiring more – and greater variety of – vegetables and fruits, as well as more whole grain-rich breads and cereals
  • Making low-fat and fat-free milk the standard for schools (flavored milk must be fat-free)
  • Establishing minimum – and, for the first time, maximum – calorie levels for three different groups of students (K-5, 6-8, 9-12)
  • Setting targets for reducing sodium levels in school meals from 2014 through 2023

While these are the first new school food regulations in over fifteen years, they aren’t news to school nutrition professionals. Dramatic improvements in school meals have been an ongoing process in districts large and small over the past decade. The northern Virginia district where First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the 2012 Nutrition Standards is an outstanding example of excellence in terms of nutrition and overall wellness.

Under the direction of Penny McConnell, MS, RD, SNS, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Food and Nutrition Services, has received numerous awards, including District of Year from the School Nutrition Association in 2010. Serving an astounding 140,000 customers daily, FCPS links cafeterias, classrooms, school gardens, and other local food sources to create a 9-5-2-1-0 Zip Code for Healthy Kids in the “Energy Zone.” The FCPS program clearly recognizes that food and nutrition are just one important aspect of raising a generation of children that is fit, healthy, and ready to succeed.

As the 2012 Nutrition Standards are implemented across the country, there will undoubtedly be many news stories about school nutrition. I believe that it is important for families and health professionals to look beyond the sensational headlines and clever sound bites to learn what is really happening in their local schools. For example, while “pizza-as-a-vegetable” became one more way to bash school meals last fall, dedicated school nutrition directors and cooks (AKA lunch ladies and gentlemen) were serving amazing pies to appreciative kids from coast to coast. Here are some of their “secret” recipes for pizza and veggies:

  • Vegetables on top of pizza: Tomatoes, peppers, onions, zucchini, and even salad! Long Beach schools on Long Island, NY, have their own pizza oven and pizza guy. They serve pizza with unlimited salad greens and encourage kids to put their salad ON their pizza – very trendy and very healthy!
  • Pizza with a side of vegetables: For their 2011 Food Day celebration last October, Foster-Glocester High School in Rhode Island served roasted squash medley with Margherita pizza (topped with fresh, local tomatoes). HEB ISD outside of Dallas, Texas, serves baby carrots and a mini-Caesar salad with a personal pizza featuring whole-grain crust and low-fat cheese.

  • Produce bars with a slice of pizza on the side: From Maine to California, kindergarteners to high school seniors have greater access to fresh, often local, veggies and fruits than ever before. In the Roscommon (Michigan) Elementary school, the only problem they have with the salad bar is keeping it stocked during their busy lunch period.
  • Secret sauces with added veggies: Please don’t tell the students, but lunch ladies can be sneaky nutritionists and they are pumping up pizza sauces with all sorts of vegetables, including fresh local tomatoes and spinach, as well as herbs instead of salt for flavor.

I am in absolute agreement with the First Lady, the Agriculture Secretary, and White House Chef Sam Kass – partnerships will be essential for the successful implementation of the new Nutrition Standards for schools. I believe that we must work together – as school nutrition professionals, school food reformers, school food manufacturers, and school food regulators – so that students have access to the meals they need for strong bodies and sharp minds.

And, we must remember that nutrition is just one piece of the “Healthy Kids Puzzle.” Physical activity, sleep, and even stress reduction are essential for growing children. Fortunately, AFHK programs, like Game On! The Ultimate Wellness Challenge, ReCharge!, and Students Taking Charge, are wonderful resources for schools and communities to use in creating the healthiest possible nutrition and fitness environments for our future.