By Dr. Mercola
Zachary Maxell was not your ordinary fourth grader. Zachary became disenchanted with the school lunches at his large public elementary school in New York City.
Every morning, he read the mouth-watering descriptions on the city’s online lunch menu to see what delectable cuisine was to be served that day.
Zach looked forward to those lunches that read as if they were coming from one of the city’s finest restaurants, but every day his heart sank when he was handed a tray of pale, lifeless, and ultimately tasteless food that was nothing like the advertisement—not by a long shot.
Irritated, hungry, and determined, Zachary decided to take matters into his own hands and went undercover.
Armed with a concealed video camera and a “healthy dose of rebellious courage,” he embarked on a covert mission to collect video footage of lunch—narrowly escaping encounters with the Lunch Lady that would end with embarrassing marches to the principal’s office.
Six months and 75 school lunches later, Zachary turned his secret footage into a short and funny but very eye-opening documentary named “Yuck!,” about New York City’s school lunch program.1
Serving Up Lies
Based on his courageous sleuthing, Zachary Maxwell gathered up enough evidence to allow a comparison between the City’s online advertisements of school lunches and what was actually served.
Was the City being truthful about the “delicious and nutritious” meals they advertised? Hardly!
Far from the mouth-watering culinary representations posted online, school lunches were highly repetitious, consisting mostly of processed foods and notably lacking in fresh fruits or vegetables. No dishes were made in house—meals were essentially a tour of factory food.
Although this was a sampling from only one school, the food quality can probably be generalized to the majority of school lunches across the country. Based upon his data, Zachary determined the following about his school lunch program:
- “Two or more advertised items” were served only 51 percent of the time
- “All advertised items” were served only 16 percent of the time
- Pizza or cheese sticks were served 28 percent of the time, regardless of what the menu advertised
What was Zachary’s ultimate conclusion? The best lunches come in a brown paper bag.
Brown Bagging Is Likely Your Child’s Healthiest Option
Packing a healthy lunch for your child is probably a good idea, as the federal lunch program is in dire need of an overhaul. Any system in which pizza and French fries qualify as “vegetables” is unlikely to offer much nutrition.
Today, the National School Lunch Program operates in over 100,000 private and public schools, as well as residential child care institutions.
In the 2006 book Lunch Lessons, Cooper and Holmes write that, under the current school lunch program, French fries represent 46 percent of “vegetable servings” consumed by children ages two to 19, nationwide.
Skim chocolate milk is the number one school lunch beverage. The rationale for this comes from the ill-conceived plan to restrict your child’s fats—even healthy fats—with complete lack of regard for sugar. The USDA believes substituting sugar for healthy fat in milk is “worth it” to get kids to drink milk.
However, adding sugar and removing healthy saturated fat is a recipe for obesity, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases, which is what we’ve been seeing in children at increasingly younger ages.
This of course completely ignores the fact that the milk is from CAFO animals given GMO feed antibiotics and hormones. Then this dangerous fluid is pasteurized to further destroy its nutritional value.
The USDA’s Smart Snacks in School program gives lip service to offering “healthy choices.” But if you look at this Smart Snacks Infographic,2 you can see that the "smarter, healthier" choices are actually processed foods, including junk foods like tortilla chips and artificially flavored water.
Most school lunches are heavily reliant on high-energy, low-nutrient-value processed foods because they’re cheaper. In 2011, the US spent more than twice as much on air conditioning for troops in Afghanistan than on the National School Lunch Program,3 and today’s childhood obesity rates reflect it.
That said, it’s not simply a matter of inadequate funding—it’s also a matter of how these funds are used.
STUDY: Kids More Likely to Be Obese if They Eat School Lunches
Besides obesity, a poor diet makes kids less academically competitive. In one study, fifth-graders who ate fast food four or more times a week showed 20 percent lower test score gains by the eighth grade.
Are school lunches directly contributing to the obesity epidemic? If you look at the results of a 2010 study,6,7 the answer is yes. More than 1,000 sixth graders in Michigan who regularly ate school lunches were found 29 percent more likely to be obese than those who brought lunches from home. Specifically, the kids who ate school lunches:
- Were more likely to be overweight or obese (38.2 percent vs. 24.7 percent)
- Were more likely to consume two or more sugary drinks a day (19 percent vs. 6.8 percent)
- Were less likely to eat at least two servings of vegetables a day (39.9 percent vs. 50.3 percent)
- Were less likely to eat at least two servings of fruits a day (32.6 percent vs. 49.4 percent)
- Were less likely to participate in sports or moderate exercise, and spent more time watching TV, playing video games, and using computers outside of school
Obesity Rates Fall When Access to Junk Food Is Limited
School policies that limit access to junk food have been demonstrated to make a difference. An article in Mother Jones8 cites a 2012 study9 by the University of Illinois that compared the weight gain of kids in states that limit junk food availability in schools with those that don’t. Students who attend school in states that limit junk food sales gained an average of 0.44 body mass index units (2.25 fewer pounds for a 5 foot tall child) less than adolescents in states with no policies.
The study also found that obese fifth graders living in states with stronger laws were more likely to reach a healthy weight by eighth grade than those living in states with no laws. Mother Jones cited another study &that found kids living in states with restricted junk food sales consume 160 fewer calories per day than kids in states with no such restrictions. The message here is clear: the accessibility of junk food substantially influences kids’ choices—and therefore their health. This is a commentary on the massive effectiveness of junk food marketing, which heavily targets children—even on the school grounds itself.
Eighty percent of public schools have contracts with Coke or Pepsi.10 Coca-Cola paid the Rockford, Illinois school district $4 million upfront and an additional $350K per year to sell its beverages in its schools. When schools aren’t forced to provide healthy food, they usually don’t, according to a 2015 study published in JAMA Pediatrics.11 Only a small number of schools offered healthy food options before the USDA federally mandated them under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
But for the small percentage of kids who did attend schools that revamped nutrition, researchers saw positive trends for obesity rates, suggesting that wider compliance could really make a difference. Even thought new nutritional standards were signed into law, schools have had a difficult time implementing these guidelines. In fact, the entire issue has become a political lightening rod between special interest groups and food industry lobbyists. French fries will not go down without a fight! If you want a detailed account of the resultant school lunch wars, this New York Times article is quite comprehensive.12
Vending Machines, Friend or Foe?
Having readily accessible vending machines fully stocked with junk food on school campuses makes matters worse by giving kids the opportunity to make even more unhealthy choices. Vending machines are found across the US in:13
- 43 percent of elementary schools
- 74 percent of middle schools
- 98 percent of high schools
The results of a 2004 Gallup Youth Survey reported that 67 percent of high school students purchased food from vending machines, but I suspect the number is probably much higher today.14 On a positive note, almost half of all school districts have now banned junk food from vending machines,15 and some now offer fresh fruits and vegetables. Studies show that students will not choose healthy foods if junk foods are an option—the temptation is too great. However, studies also suggest that removing vending machines altogether does not work, as kids will obtain junk food from other places. When vending machines offer ONLY healthy choices, kids will buy those items—in other words, they adapt.16,17
How American School Lunches Stack Up, Next to France
Kids actually appreciate real food. A study18 recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Childhood Obesity found that, just like our star fourth-grader Zachary Maxwell, 70 percent of kids actually prefer healthier lunches.19 But where does a kid have to go to get a tasty, nutritious lunch? Outside the US, it would seem.
Consider what kids are served for lunch in France.20 There, almost all foods are prepared from scratch, right in the school kitchen. Main dishes, vegetables, soups, salads, and desserts are prepared daily, typically from local sources—you won’t find any frozen chicken fingers or pink slime burgers in French cafeterias. The only beverage served to schoolchildren there is filtered tap water. French children also get three recess periods per day—two 15-minute and one 60-minute recess—and the majority walk or bike to school. Given this, it’s not surprising that French kids aren’t fat. If you want to see what kids eat for lunch in other parts of the world, Business Insider has prepared an interesting slideshow.21
They’re Calling Off Recess... Seriously?
Physical education classes are at a historic low, often the first to get hit by budget cuts, but worse still, some schools are now eliminating recess.22,23 For a nation with childhood obesity rates already through the roof, this is insane! Why cut recess? Student performance on mandatory standardized tests often dictates teachers’ pay, and in some cases their jobs. So, many teachers are requiring students to spend playground time in the classroom, preparing for these tests.
Exercise is essential for children’s physical and mental health, as well as their social development. Children who exercise have better math and reading scores, improved concentration, stronger bones, better sleep, and lower risk of obesity and diabetes, as well as a mountain of other health benefits. The last thing we need to do is decrease exercise time and set them up for a potential of future inactivity that will decimate their health.
A Few Basic Tenets of Raising a Healthy, Happy Child
You have the unique opportunity (and responsibility) for teaching your child what “real food” is—particularly if his school is setting the opposite example. The following are a few basic lifestyle strategies you can model and teach your child:
- Proper food choices: Focus on eating a variety of locally sourced, organic whole foods, and consume a large percentage of them raw. Avoid refined sugar, especially high fructose corn syrup and other processed forms of fructose, sodas, pre-packaged foods and sports drinks. Make sure your child gets ample healthy fats, such as coconut oil, raw grass-fed butter, raw nuts, avocados, etc. Introduce your child to naturally fermented foods, which should become a permanent part of his diet. And if your child is not getting an acceptable school lunch, pack one at home.
- Daily exercise: Limit your child’s indoor time, especially in front of the TV, computer, and other electronic devices. Overweight and obese children need at least 30 minutes of exercise each day, and may benefit from closer to 60 minutes. Encourage your kids to play outside—and don’t be afraid of the dirt! Playing outside has the additional benefit of sun exposure to optimize vitamin D levels.
- Drink plenty of pure water: Introduce your child to the concept of fresh water as a beverage, as opposed to sodas and other commercial drinks.
- High-quality sleep: Children who sleep more tend to weigh less and have lower levels of the hormone leptin, better insulin sensitivity, and fewer food cravings than children who sleep less.
- Help your child manage stress: Stress affects kids as well as adults, so it’s important to teach your child how to manage it. One great technique that’s simple enough for kids to learn is EFT, or Emotional Freedom Technique (tapping). EFT can also benefit you, as a parent, to cope with the stresses of parenting. For more information, please visit my EFT page.
- Avoid as many chemicals and toxins as possible: Hormone-mimicking chemicals in common food and household products are known contributors to precocious puberty and other endocrine problems in children. Replace your child’s personal products (shampoos, lotions, soaps, cosmetics, etc.) and cleaning products with greener alternatives.
- Make informed choices about your child’s medical care: I cannot impress upon you strongly enough the importance of your active involvement in all aspects of your child’s healthcare, including vaccination.