Which are you more likely to find in today’s school cafeterias, chubby kids chowing down on junk food or student athletes desperate for enough lunch to get them through volleyball practice without fainting?
The YouTube video parody “We Are Hungry” made by a group calling itself Nutrition Nannies suggests the latter, and has generated more than 990,000 views and plenty of media attention.
The changes to school lunches this year that sparked the outcry originated with the USDA, which updated standards for the federal school lunch program for the first time since 1995. During the 17 years since the last update, childhood obesity has continued to be a hot-button issue, and the guidelines seem designed to address the problem. They require lunches to include more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and low-fat dairy and fewer fats. They also cap calories at 550-650 per meal in elementary schools, 600-700 in middle school and 750-850 in high school.
Critics of the new policy say the one-size-fits-all meals aren’t providing enough food for student athletes, who often go straight from school to training sessions and practice.
Some nutrition experts, meanwhile, contend that for most students the new guidelines provide plenty of nutrition and calories, and that the few who are active enough to require more have plenty of options.
“It’s important to note that calorie counts in school lunches have not changed dramatically in terms of what kids were served in previous years,” says Jessica Donze Black, R.D., director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project at the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts. The last national study to assess the school lunch program found high school students receiving around 787 calories per meal, which is in the range of what they are being offered now. “The difference is that now these calories are coming from healthier food,” she says.
Donze Black cites a study from the health research organization Bridging the Gap, which found that only one in three high school students participate in interscholastic sports. “Among the minority that are athletes, a healthy snack before or after practice combined with a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner will provide plenty of food for them throughout the day,” says the dietician and mother of three.
She notes that schools can provide after-school snacks for students through the National School Lunch Program or offer a-la-carte foods during lunch. And students can also bring snacks from home. “With one in three children in our country overweight or obese, we can’t keep feeding all kids like they’re athletes in vigorous training,” Donze Black says.
For parents, she suggests keeping an eye on what is going on in the cafeteria. Read the school lunch menus, talk with your kids about what they are eating, and check out the cafeteria during lunchtime if you can. “Many factors can contribute to kids responding negatively to a school lunch – lack of time, long lines, chaos among friends – all frequent complaints that have little to do with healthy nutrition standards,” she says.