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What Parents Ought to Know About School Lunches

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If you have an older kid like me, maybe they are saying things like “Aiden got _____ in their lunch, no fair!” Kids notice what other kids eat so early. They also talk about other kids’ food – maybe in a not very kind way.

Are school lunches healthy?

A few years ago an 8-year-old I knew told me, “I don’t think school lunches are very healthy.”

As a registered dietitian, here are the 3 facts I think about when it comes to school lunches.

  • 1 in 7 kids in the US is food insecure. Food insecure means that kids may not have enough food this month. 
  • School lunches protect millions of children’s brains and bodies from hunger so that they can learn. 
  • School lunch standards are good and no one should feel guilty about using school lunches. 

School lunches are a solid source of nutrition and meet nutritional standards for kids of school age

School lunches prevent hunger in children who may face hunger at home. They help families who are struggling financially. They help families who don’t have time to make lunches as they balance life. ⁠⁠ And also, some families won’t use them for a host of reasons, and that’s great too. ⁠⁠

The stigma of school lunches

The problem is, kids often skip free school meals because of stigma. Stigma comes from other kids criticizing them. It also comes from parents saying school lunches are “bad” or “unhealthy.” When a stigmatized kid skips a school lunch, they miss tons of nutrition that they can’t get later. 

The lack of nutrition builds up over time. It snowballs. It creates difficulty learning and succeeding in school. It causes long-term issues. 

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Why we need to stop calling food “good” or “bad”

Calling food “good,” “bad,” “healthy,” or “unhealthy” is not helpful. It hurts kids when you say “your food is bad.” Not in an “Oh, my feelings were hurt” way – in a “now a child is skipping free lunch and no longer meeting their vitamin A requirement” sort of way.

Is it okay to use school lunches? 

Yes.

Is it okay to send lunches if your kid needs homemade lunches for whatever reason? Yes.

Is it okay to use free lunches this year if you have a solid income? Yes. Using the lunch benefit brings in more revenue for the school to use toward meals. 

Is it okay to rant at home about your opinions about school lunch quality in front of kids? No. No it is not. We have no idea how one comment from an unhungry child to a child at risk of hunger can cause long term-damage. 

What can we do to improve the quality of school lunches

If you want to push for local or national improvements in school meals, join a wellness council, run for office (PTA, local, state, federal), organize parents, or vote for someone who will represent your cause. 

Above all, let’s protect the kids who are the most at risk by making sure that our kids are kind with their opinions and words about school lunches. 

Whatever food choices make the most sense for your family, are choices I (and the whole team here) will support you in. 

If you’re struggling to make ends meet with food, we have a budget-friendly meal plan that helps feed a family of 4 for $500 a month in groceries or less. It has helped many families in our community make their food dollars last longer. Plus it’s available for free if that’s best for your family, or for a range of prices so that you can decide which price works for you. 

Jennifer Anderson

Jennifer Anderson is a registered dietitian with a masters of science in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is the founder and CEO of Kids Eat In Color - the world’s leading resource for helping get kids on the path to eating better without the mealtime battles.

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