The Main Problem With School Lunches
Tony Mecia, The Weekly Standard
Oh, what Bridget O'Brien Wood could do if the government allowed her just a little more salt. She could serve potato salad that isn't bland. She could experiment with curry sauces. And O'Brien Wood, food service director with Buffalo Public Schools, could finally tell parents that the French fries at lunch taste like the ones their kids gobble up at restaurants.
As it is, O'Brien Wood finds herself in a pickle: She has to serve foods that Buffalo's schoolchildren will eat, but in a way that complies with strict federal nutrition standards intended to combat childhood obesity.
Those standards have forced her and her colleagues to get creative. Not all attempts have worked. When they serve whole-grain spaghetti with meat sauce, some students eat only the meat sauce. When they brought in a local chef to prepare shepherd's pie that met the requirements by including turnips and other root vegetables, most kids wouldn't touch it. Fruit, salad bars, and potatoes have been hits. But other veggies, like oven-baked sweet potato fries, are a tough sell because of clampdowns on sodium.
"You put a little salt on something, they'll eat it," she says. "The vegetables are the new challenge. Just that little bit of extra salt makes all the difference in the world."
Around the country, school officials are contending with the effects of the regulations—effects that differ from the ones policymakers intended when the rules went into force five years ago. Some teachers have said students return from lunch hungry. Administrators say they're concerned with wasted food. And though it's early in this grand experiment to improve the dietary habits of the country's children, there's little proof that it is actually accomplishing its goals. For all the work done in Washington to ensure healthy food is served on school cafeteria trays—and there are pages upon pages of regulations, menu guides, and Department of Agriculture interpretations—policymakers have still not figured out what most parents learn the hard way: You can't force picky eaters to consume food they find unappealing.
"It's not nutritious," O'Brien Wood says, "if they never eat it."