By Sara Mead
The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss has had some good school meets food blogging this week. Today, she’s investigating the Department of Agriculture’s list of “foods of minimal nutritional value,” which schools participating in the school lunch program may not allow to be sold on school premises during school lunch or breakfast hours. It’s a pretty random list, barring the sale of some items, such as carbonated water (as part of a larger soda/pop ban) and gum, that are neither bad for kids nor substitutes for more nutritious food, while permitting the sale of an awful lot of high-calorie, high-fat, low-nutrition junk.
Earlier in the week, Strauss bemoaned the high sugar content–more than kids should eat in an entire day–in many district-provided school breakfasts. This is a good illustration of why I’m impatient with Alice Waters-style efforts to upgrade the school lunch program with more organic, locally raised, and home cooked food. The bar some school lunch reformers want to set is so, so far away from where we are now, and I worry that it distracts from simpler, more realistic, and more affordable ways to really improve the nutritional content of what kids are getting in school.
A really sugary school breakfast is not good for kids. It hypes them up first thing in the morning, then leads to a mid-morning crash, neither of which is good for teaching and learning. Sugary cereals also have negative dental implications for low-income kids who may not have access to regular dental care. Kids should be getting complex carbs and protein at breakfast, not a ton of sugar. But reducing the sugar content and upping the protein and complex carbs in school breakfast has nothing to do with organic and local ingredients or on-site preparation. Simply substituting the sugary cereal with a higher fiber, lower sugar generic boxed cereal, or instant oatmeal, would be a world of improvement. Replacing orange juice with milk, water, fresh oranges, or even canned fruit cups in light syrup would also be an improvement. Donuts and pop tarts should not be sold during school breakfast. Period. Doing any of these things would probably cost a bit more money than we currently spend, but would likely pay off in improved student attention and learning, and is much less of a stretch than what some school lunch reformers are asking for.