The reality of School Lunches

A new Executive Branch Administration means a review of anything and everything done by the old administration. Unlike in regime changes past where most of the political motivation was to put the ideological stamp on the Executive Branch of those in change, the current Trump-Republican one is simply to undo anything and everything the previous Democrats might have touched.

Trump’s irrational disdain of Obama aside, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act has been in the crosshairs of not only Republicans but counter-reformists, Corporate special interests and event Parent and Student groups from Day One. Many of their complaints come as no surprise really, and neither are any of their reinvigorated attacks on the program either.

Someone within my network posted a so-called think piece on their personal support in repealing the HHFKA regulation. Both the poster’s defense of the position and the original opinion piece were rooted in a kind of truthiness based on specifically framing personal experience with a rosy colored nostalgia while cherrypicking facts in order to substantiate their beliefs.

This was the gist of my initial reply:

In response to the HHFKA there have been several studies on school lunch usage and waste. Of the over-arching points that came out of the Congressional Study, the NYC-DOE study, the Miami Herold, New York Times, LA Times and HuffPo pieces, and a couple of not-for-profit independent audits and studies by Harvard School of Public Health, the University of Connecticut and the Baylor College of Medicine and the American Pediatrics Association is that 1) there’s a significant lack of data pre-dating the HHFKA in understanding how much food was consumed or wasted under previous programs 2) the reasons for high consumption or high waste vary significantly from implementation-to-implementation when the data is drilled down into 3) the program alone only currently focuses on the servicing of healthy meals during school hours and doesn’t contain additional reenforcement services and 4) the program’s data-set only looks at 2012 through 2015, meaning only current 2-4th graders have grown up in the program potentially from day one. The program likely would have minimal effect on older students because their habits would be influenced by a large number of stimuli that have nothing to do with the program’s touch points.

As for reasons for producing waste one of the biggest “talking points” is that the food “doesn’t taste good.” The assumption by critics is because healthy food lacks the sugar, salt and fat of the junk food kids are more accustomed to either eating off-hours or were getting in previous school lunches. However, if critics actually bothered to drill down into the data itself, there’s a surprising list of reasons the healthier meals might not resonate including student responses that take into account a lack of ethnic flavors, regional flavor preferences, etc. meaning some of the “new food options” weren’t being rejected because they were too healthy but because they didn’t resemble enough the kind of food the children were used to and that pallet preference rarely came back to the food not being junk foody enough. Some of the more successful programs were the ones that adapted the standards to a culinary palate that actually matched the racial, ethnic and social makeup of the kids receiving food services rather than going with the more traditional ‘Murkan meat-and-potatoes type of plate. Seems like common sense, and HHFKA does allow for it, but being it’s rarely implemented might be a contributing factor to HHFKA’s difficult adoption due to misinterpretation or misuse of the underlying regulatory standards.

Another interesting insight into the consumption / waste patterns that came out of some of the study notes was that over the course of the last decade the time set aside for eating for many students had diminished. As educational programs became more tied to standardized testing the allotted time for early morning homeroom and lunch diminished. In some cases, student’s ability to eat a provided morning breakfast was shrunk to just 10 minutes while a lunch could be as short as half of a period. Some of the highest consumption rates found in the studies were in programs where homerooms exceeded 20 minutes and lunches existed of full 45-55 minute “class” periods. While it could be correlation rather than direct causation it would seem giving students ample opportunity to actually consume (in the course of also doing the requisite socializing) might improve the outcome. I know personally, given less than 10 minutes in the morning to sit down and eat an actual breakfast or skip it and deal with the hunger consequences/eat easy to carry “snacks” while “in transit” in order to use that 10 minutes to accomplish other things I’ll most of the time do the latter – which is likely what many of these kids are deciding too if I can use the anecdotal stories of the teachers I know.

Funny enough, there’s a bit more available research into food distribution programs for the poor, homeless and/or those dealing with disasters and many of the conclusions that research has come up with could be applied to HHFKA implementation but a combination of a lack of knowledge that research exists, a distrust of research in general, a bias against the idea that information about the eating habits of poor adults could influence decisions for children, etc. those studies findings are often overlooked. Furthermore, it’s my understanding the DOD has studied food consumption patterns as well, it could be that there’s useful information in those findings too that could be applied to how to implement HHFKA but it doesn’t seem to be being referenced as far as I can tell.

Interesting side note, but did you know the idea of school provided meals was begun during the late 1800s/early 1900s mass immigrations where cities were using the school lunch programs for assimilation purposes in order to try and influence children’s pallets both to teach them how to be “American” and furthermore to then change the consumption patterns of their immigrant parents thinking the children would bring home these new food demands . Even decades later, there’s debate on how well either aspect actually worked, but the idea of influencing children’s behavior early to both set them up for future “good” behavior and/or for them to take those preferences and learnings home and potential influence parental behaviors to this day remains part of the school meal’s program agenda – just under the guise of healthy eating rather than (just) on social assimilation.

Like every other program (and not just food programs, but social programs in general) either on a national or a local level, it’s failures (and it’s future success) is rarely tied to a single aspect of the law itself, but rather a complex web of inter-related objects all influencing the outcome including in some cases those “following the law” in a way that actual undermines its success rather than the law itself being inherently unsuccessful.


About thedoormouse

I am I. That’s all that i am. my little mousehole in cyberspace of fiction, recipes, sacrasm, op-ed on music, sports, and other notations both grand and tiny:
This entry was posted in business commentary, Edible & Digestable, Opinion, personal musings. Bookmark the permalink.

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