School food exists in a fraught balance of government funding and dubious nutritional standards. Government legislators defend the slackening of nutrition guidelines on the basis that they not only cut costs, but that kids find healthy food unpalatable.
The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, implemented in 2010, continues to set national nutrition standards, although the new administration has taken a step back on enforcement and given schools more leeway in interpretation.
Healthy on Paper
A 2015 New York Times article offers some insight into why kids might be turning up their noses at school meals. The nutrition standards of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act are based on low fat, re-engineered products that allow for a low fat, low salt philly cheese steak sandwich but not jasmine rice to be served. The result are foods that have been reformulated to be nutritious on paper but are not appealing to the palate.
Even the Urban School Food Alliance (a coalition of school districts from major urban areas that advocates for affordable and nutritious school meals) recommends pre-prepared fruits over “hard to eat” whole apples or oranges. Our entire school food system is geared towards convenience and perceived nutritional value rather than what is best for the children.
Creating Access to Healthy Food
In our ongoing after school programs and STEM based cooking classes, Allergic to Salad continues to make healthy, hands on cooking a presence in students’ lives, changing perceptions and shifting attitudes. On an individual basis, we allow students to discover this basic, life altering truth: healthy food doesn’t have to be gross.
Not only are school meals dubious; many children do not have access to nutritious food at home. This is especially an issue in the summer time, when 6 out of 7 children do not have access to school meals, and the burden of provision is increased for parents.
Leanne Brown is the author of Good and Cheap, a free cookbook that offers meal plans and recipes for parents on a food stamp budget which amounts to around $4/day. Brown is a strong advocate for food education beginning in the home.”Teaching families to cook, Brown believes, will help them eat quality food — even on an extremely low budget,” NPR’s The Salt reports.
Raising Adventurous Eaters
The New York Times reports that the most critical stage of palate forming is in the first two years of life. Infants are predisposed to prefer sweet and salty flavors, which can make them vulnerable to lack of nutrition later in life. But research also shows that early exposure can help to shift these patterns and broaden children’s palates. A 2014 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Julie Menella states that
The good news is that sensory experiences, beginning early in life, can shape preferences…infants can learn through repeated exposure and dietary variety if caregivers focus on the child’s willingness to consume a food and not just the facial expressions made during feeding.
Allergic to Salad also provides ongoing classes for caregivers on baby-led weaning and adventurous eating. While we continue to advocate for more effective and holistic school nutrition standards (and universal access to free school lunches), we believe that addressing the root causes of nutritional deficiency is crucial. Ann Cooper, Food Services Director at Boulder Valley School District in CO agrees. “’We have to educate the kids about healthy eating,’ she said. ‘If a kid wasn’t reading at grade level we would work harder to get them to read at grade level, but with food we’ve somehow abdicated that part of their education.’”