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High School Students Boycott Junk Food School Lunches

Story at-a-glance -

  • Students at Albany Park’s Theodore Roosevelt High School in Chicago boycotted the school lunch program in hopes of gaining access to healthier, less processed foods
  • The federal lunch program as a whole is in dire need of an overhaul. The problem originates with federal guidelines, which allow French fries and pizza sauce to qualify as vegetables
  • School lunches can affect children’s future in more ways than one. Regenerative farming practices are required to reverse ecological devastation, and national food programs can help catalyze this change

By Dr. Mercola

American school lunches have become notorious for their poor quality. In most schools, none of the dishes are made in house, and most are notably lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables.

Overall, school lunches are the epitome of processed factory food, laden with sugar and synthetic ingredients. For example, skim chocolate milk is the No.1 school lunch beverage.

The rationale for this comes from the ill-conceived plan to restrict your child's fats — especially 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.

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 2 to 19, nationwide.

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.

High School Students Boycott School Lunch

As reported by the Chicago Tribune1 on December 7, students at Albany Park's Theodore Roosevelt High School decided to boycott the school lunch program in hopes of inciting change.

If the boycott were to catch on in other school districts across the country, it could be a game-changing event. The lunch program at Theodore Roosevelt High School is administrated by Aramark, and:

"'The students found that if they boycotted lunch, that Aramark wouldn't get paid, and they saw that as a means of forcing the company and Chicago Public Schools to provide higher quality food,' civics teacher Timothy Meegan told Chicago radio station WBBM-AM."

An estimated 80 percent of the students took part in the three-day long boycott, which arose from a civics class project. As reported in the featured article:2

"In Civics we are working on project based learning. We brainstormed a list of potential issues to work on, narrowed the list to three, and finally voted to work on improving school lunch," the students explain on their website, 'The School Lunch Project: Culinary Denial.'

The site outlines concerns by students about the quality of their school lunches, complete with photographs of food apparently being served at the high school.

On the site, the students complain that they are offered either hamburgers, chicken patties, or pizza on most school days. They would prefer salads, sandwiches, and fresh fruits.

'We remember Michelle Obama wanting to get CPS [Chicago Public Schools] students to eat healthy. What we are eating is not healthy; sometime it's exasperating,' the site states."

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Federal Guidelines Created a Substandard School Lunch Program

The students report an improvement in the "presentation and freshness of our food" since the start of the boycott. Mr. Meegan also noted that Aramark suddenly sent in premium fresh produce from a Murano food company — a strategy he believes was meant to undermine the boycott.

To help in this effort, I personally donated 10,000 bags of our puffed rice granola to help feed the boycotting students; Chicago's Dill Pickle Co-Op supplied organic fruit and yogurt.3,4

Aramark has denied making any changes as a result of the boycott. Karen Cutler, vice president of communications at Aramark, also said they "would welcome the chance to meet with the students and their teacher to hear from them directly and to explain how school lunch works under the USDA program."

However, the students aren't interested in long drawn-out talks that ultimately stand little chance of resulting in any real change; hence the decision to boycott the program.

It's quite clear that the federal lunch program as a whole is in dire need of an overhaul. The problem does not necessarily originate with Aramark, but with the federal guidelines, which allow French fries and pizza sauce to qualify as vegetables in the first place.

Most school lunches are heavily reliant on high-energy, low-nutrient-value processed foods because they're cheaper. "Pink slime," which gained a lot of publicity three years ago, is a perfect example of the bottom-of-the-barrel kind of processed foods served as staples in the U.S. school lunch program.

Roosevelt High Urges Other School Districts to Join the Boycott

In a December 11 blog post, the students at Theodore Roosevelt High School comment on the lack of food quality, noting that:

"... [T]he food has no taste, texture is dry, and biscuits are very dry and impossible to chew. The ingredients taste cheap. The fruits and vegetables they serve us they're not very fresh and some are rotten ... the tomatoes taste sour and the packaged apple slices taste bitter and dry.

Quality of school food should be nutritious and fresh but instead we get prepackaged and processed food every day. The only raw meat cooked at school is chicken drumsticks.

CPS is in a contract with Aramark but, that doesn't mean we deserve this type of food ... as students need healthy and fresh food in order to last the whole day with energy because some of us have after school activities to participate in."

The students are now calling for other schools to organize their own school lunch boycotts, saying, "If we all get in this together we might be able to make this change happen."

Indeed, boycotting school lunches is perhaps one of the few strategies that has the power to create rapid change, simply because it hits the industry right where it hurts — their profits.

Even a few days’ worth of losses on a nationwide scale could threaten the bottom line of a company like Aramark. In essence, such a scenario would force them to change rather quickly.

The “Real Food Campus Commitment,” created by The Real Food Challenge, contains a specific set of principles that Aramark and Chicago (or any other school system) could pledge to uphold. The “Good Food Purchasing Guidelines for Food Service Institutions,” by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council is another helpful document that could be used for guidance.

Surprising as it may seem to some, kids actually do appreciate real food. A study5 published in the peer-reviewed journal Childhood Obesity found that 70 percent of kids actually prefer healthier lunches.6

Public schools are always quick to point out that their school lunch program meets or exceeds federal nutrition guidelines, but that's NOT the right answer, for the simple reason that the federal guidelines have repeatedly been shown to be completely inadequate; ruled by food industry interests more so than by the science of quality nutrition.

I applaud Roosevelt High's students for taking matters into their own hands — they should care about the quality of their lunches, because it affects their health, and their future. I hope other schools take up the cause as well.

Kids More Likely to Be Obese If They Eat School Lunches

Over the past 14 years, severe obesity has increased among children, according to a 2014 study published in JAMA Pediatrics.7 In NYC, 1 in 5 kindergarteners is obese.8 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 8th grade.

Are school lunches directly contributing to the obesity epidemic? If you look at the results of a 2010 study,9,10 the answer is yes. More than 1,000 sixth graders in Michigan who regularly ate school lunches were 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

Shifting into a socially responsible, smaller-scale system where independent producers and processors focus on providing food for their local and regional markets — including local schools — would go a long way toward improving food safety and nutrition.

The simplest way back toward health, for children and adults alike, is to focus on REAL food – foods that have not been processed or altered from their original state. Food that has been grown or raised as nature intended, without the use of chemical additives, pesticides and fertilizers. Such a shift would also have a positive impact on the environment.

The World Is Losing Its Farmable Land

Our youth are facing a grim future indeed, thanks to corporate greed and misapplied technology. As noted by Science Alert,11 in the last 40 years alone, we've lost nearly one-third of the world's farmable land.

In a nutshell, current farming methods, which rely on industrial agriculture, monocropping and chemicals, are "leading to what could be a disaster for food production in the near future." To ward off disaster, we must act now, and the remedy is not newer chemicals or new breeds of genetically engineered seeds.

We must implement regenerative farming practices12 to reverse the continuous loss of soil, and food programs like the school lunch program could actually play an important role in catalyzing this change, simply because it's so big, and covers virtually every community in the country.

Water is also getting short in supply, and regenerative farming practices very effectively address this pressing concern as well. In fact, soil, water, plant growth, and atmospheric conditions are closely interlinked, and our farming practices therefore play an important role in the ecological balance of the planet.

These relationships are the topic of an upcoming intensive PhD course13 organized by the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague. The course will take place from July 25 to August 5, 2016, with initial portions being offered online, and the remaining on location at Ege University in Izmir, Turkey. Animals are also a crucial complement.

Rather than being raised by the tens of thousands in factory-style warehouses that pollute the landscape and threaten the health of people who live nearby, livestock can be raised in such a way that they benefit not just soil health and plant growth, but the ecology as a whole.

The Importance of Soil Carbon Restoration


The French government recently launched the "4 per 1,000 Initiative" — a climate change strategy that came out of the COP21 Paris Climate Talks.14 The initiative has support from a wide array of organizations, including IFOAM Organics International, and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Unfortunately, the U.S. government has not yet signed on. As noted by the OCA:15

"France, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the U.K., Germany, and Mexico are among the more than two dozen countries that have so far signed on to what one day will likely be recognized as the most significant climate initiative in history. France's 4/1000 Initiative: Soils for Food Security and Climate16 puts regenerative food and farming front and center in the climate solutions conversation ...

Leaders from 190 countries convened in Paris on November 30 for the 14-day COP21 Paris Climate Conference. This year, for the first time in over 20 years of United Nations climate negotiations, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) set out to achieve something concrete: 'a legally binding and universal agreement to make sure the Earth doesn't get warmer than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.'

To meet that goal, the French Government launched the 4/1000 Initiative which, distilled to simplest terms, says this: If, on a global scale, we increase the soil carbon content of the soil by .04 percent each year for the next 25 years, we can draw down a critical mass of excess carbon from the atmosphere and begin to reverse global warming. Is the French Initiative realistic? Yes, even by conservative estimates."

To Rebalance the Carbon Cycle, We Must Address Agriculture


To fully understand how biology can reverse rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, I suggest reading through the Northeast Organic Farming Association's 16-page white paper,17 "Soil Carbon Restoration: Can biology do the job?" As noted in a recent Washington Post article:18

"We think of climate change as a consequence of burning fossil fuels. But a third of the carbon in the atmosphere today used to be in the soil, and modern farming is largely to blame. Practices such as the overuse of chemicals, excessive tilling, and the use of heavy machinery disturb the soil's organic matter, exposing carbon molecules to the air, where they combine with oxygen to create carbon dioxide.

Put another way: human activity has turned the living and fertile carbon system in our dirt into a toxic atmospheric gas ... Climate change, quite simply, cannot be halted without fixing agriculture."

We Must Do a Better Job of Safeguarding Our Children's Future

As a general rule, we believe that adults know best, and that adults in positions of authority are "always" acting in the best interest of children. The reality of the world at large tells a different story. More often than not, corporations benefit at the expense of children's health and safety. The federal guidelines directing school lunch programs are just one example.

I find it encouraging that high school students take issue with the meals served at school and recognize that the processed fare served is far from ideal in terms of nutrition.

Some schools have already made very positive changes, such as transitioning over to antibiotic-free chicken, and/or serving fresh produce from local farms as part of the National Farm to School Network,19 but they stick out like rare exceptions. REAL food is a right for all children.

And just as people across the US are urged to boycott factory farmed foods20 to usher in sustainable and soil-regenerative agriculture as the norm, so students across the nation can contribute to this cause by addressing the source and quality of the food served in their schools.

To promote positive change, also consider supporting the Farm to School Act of 201521 by signing this letter to Congress.

Endorse the Farm-to-School Act fo 2015