The evolution of the school lunch menu
Monday, August 27, 2018
For anyone in their 30s or older, it comes as no surprise that over the past two decades, America’s palate has evolved and diversified. Tuna casserole and meatloaf dinners have been replaced with meals that have much bolder flavors and are influenced by many ethnic backgrounds.
This CNBC article from 2017 that discussed this trend came to this conclusion about how and why this evolution has occurred: "The changing culinary landscape is the result of increased social media and television coverage that expand consumer awareness, and millennial eaters who are more adventurous and experimental with their food choices."
As you might expect, the changing palate for adults also means a new palate for kids, and that has had a big impact on school lunch programs from coast to coast.
Recently, I brought an old friend from high school who hasn’t stepped foot in a school since we graduated 20 years ago through the school lunch line in the New Hampshire high school where I am the principal. She was astonished at the menu options available to my students.
That day, the specialty line was trying out some new Asian fusion dishes. For kids who were hesitant to try something new, they were offering free samples. In other parts of the kitchen, kids were gravitating towards some of their favorite standbys of make your own sandwiches or the salad bar.
At the pizza station, a tomato, basil and fresh mozzarella pizza was being sliced up with a side of kale chips. Our kitchen staff regularly asks students for their feedback and tries to incorporate their ideas into new menu options.
For my friend, this was a foreign concept to the school lunches we remember from the mid-to-late 90s. Then, meals were one-size-fits-all, and nutrition and flavor came second to cost and convenience for the school to produce the meal. Without question, today’s school lunches have evolved considerably.
While our country has been on a quest for bold new flavors for its lunch program, it has also navigated the sometimes-tricky waters of adhering to the ever-increasing nutritional standards set forth in federal guidelines for reimbursable meals.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, as many studies such as this one published last year by The Atlantic, point to a strong correlation between healthy school lunches and academic test scores.
In the article, Sean Patrick Corcoran, an associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, stated: "I've seen a number of other rigorous studies that also find a connection between healthy eating and academic performance," he said.
"Students who eat regular, healthy meals are less likely to be tired, are more attentive in class, and retain more information." And he said some effects are almost immediate: “Even when schools serve calorie-rich food on test day, students perform better on those tests.”
The struggle to provide healthier, diversified, and cost-effective menu options has left many schools with more questions than answers. Indeed, this New York Times article described how the regulations were turning kids away from school lunches.
In schools across America, fruits and vegetables were being scraped off of lunch trays and into the trash. The article quoted a recent survey that concluded, "Children consumed fewer [fruits and vegetables] and wasted more [fruits and vegetables] during the school year immediately following implementation of the USDA rule that required them to take one fruit or vegetable at lunch."
It seems now that there is a push in Washington to relax some of the regulations to combat this issue. As a result, many schools like mine are starting to experiment with menu options or choices to bring students back through the lunch lines.
This recent EdWeek article discussed an interesting new trend of private restaurant and catering options for parents for their children. The article highlighted entrepreneur Lisa Farrell, who recently launched Red Apple Lunch, a business that prepares healthy lunches with local foods (when possible) and delivers them to either homes or, directly to schools (if school rules allow for this).
The business model is based on the idea that kids don’t always like or want the school lunch option, but parents don’t have the time to prepare an alternative lunch. Schools that allow delivery of such lunches are setting themselves up for what could be an interesting debate over whether or not schools have an obligation to ensure all students have access to the same high-quality meals or not.
This will be an interesting debate to follow as we embark on a new school year.
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