The Agriculture Department’s regulations strengthening nutritional standards for school lunches are necessary and beneficial
WHEN it comes to reforming American schools, the debate rightly focuses most consistently on improving academics. Yet our school system needs more than just improvements in academic quality. Another movement, the war against unhealthy eating in schools, pops up occasionally in the media and deserves more coverage in its own right. This is especially true because of how severely America is struggling with obesity. Fortunately, progress in school dining may be imminent, thanks to new regulations passed by the U.S. Agriculture Department.
The Agriculture Department recently publicized a series of new standards, which would create regulations in nearly all schools regarding nutritional categories such as sodium, fat, sugar and calories. As a result, schools would be forced to provide healthier food to students. That would be a welcome step in the right direction, as middle and high schools have often come under fire for their poor-quality lunches. Perhaps the main benefit of these regulations is that they will result in schools offering alternative dining opportunities for students. Unlike in college, high school students are generally not able to seek an array of food choices during their time in school. They are confined to what their school offers, which may well be unhealthy items. Schools, if they care about their students’ well-being, should have already recognized this. But if they have not started offering better food choices, governmental intervention to stimulate improvements in cafeterias can be nothing but beneficial. Students can choose whatever food they consume when they are at home. While in school, they should not be forced to choose between a range of equally unhealthy options.
Granted, my support of these new standards may be strongly biased by my own high school dining experiences. My school — as great as it was in other respects — consistently served lunches of abysmal nutritional value. And despite the fact we were assured several times that the school was offering nothing but balanced meals to students, the “healthy” parts of the lunches would often consist of a small scoop of carrots to accompany an Arby’s sandwich or another less than desirable main course. Nevertheless, I know my school was not an exception. There have been previous efforts to bring the poor nutritional quality of school food to the public’s attention. Perhaps most notably, several news sources wrote stories last year on the “pink slime” used in processed meats found in many school lunches. Additionally, professional chef Jamie Oliver has worked to improve awareness of the quality of school lunches. His show, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” was short-lived but provides strong context and background information about poor-quality food in schools.
I hope the Agriculture Department’s regulations will not be met with much opposition. Critics of the government policing school dining options voice concerns about students not getting enough to eat. Most students will realistically not eat as much food now, they argue, because kids are often averse to vegetables and healthier foods. As a result, more children will go through school hungry. The lunches now may not be the healthiest, but at least students agree to eat them.
Some critics may also try to draw parallels between those regulations and the ban on large soft drinks imposed in New York City last summer. Opponents of the ban proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg objected to the government attempting to control people’s food choices.
Such arguments, however, are weak. The rules about food and drinks in schools should not be that contentious. The limits only refer to items offered by the school during school hours. Events such as bake sales or concessions at sporting events will not be covered. Students are free to eat however they want on their own time. The food schools may offer will be different, but it will in no way be the fault of schools if their students refuse to eat it. It seems nothing but reasonable to expect schools to provide students with meals of higher nutritional content, and the students should be able to adapt accordingly. If anything, presenting students with different, more beneficial foods may instigate a shift in thought. If more children become less averse to healthier eating at school, they can carry that trend into their personal lives.
The U.S. struggles immensely with childhood obesity, so these new regulations should be met with open arms. We need to teach kids early on about the benefits of choosing the right foods. Children eat many of their weekday meals in school, so schools can play a critical part of creating a shift in eating choices. If even a small proportion of students began to eat more healthily because of their school’s altered menu, then the regulations will have been a success.
Alex Yahanda is a senior associate editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.