School Lunch Is Actually Rocket Science

I vividly remember my school in 5th grade.  I would get so excited when the smell of the fresh, homemade rolls rolled down the hallways.  I knew it was beef tips & rice day, and I immediately planned exactly which of my friends I would ask to have their roll.  
Region 7 ESC Blog, Geri Barrett, School Lunch is Actually Rocket Science, Child Nutrition, NSLP, cafeteria, federal regulations,

For several years recently, bashing school lunches has become a popular social media source of power.  Everyone has seen the photos posted online with punching captions and clobbering comments.  I shudder to think what might have been said about a youth meal that I likely served my kids, like little smokies, mac & cheese, and some green beans.  Hey, I covered the main food groups!  We won’t talk about the fact that it was mainly processed, full of sodium, and not really that healthy.  My only bragging point was that my kindergartner did say to her teacher that green beans were her favorite food – so basically, I was a winning mom, in my opinion.

School lunch is a terribly complicated endeavor.  School nutrition personnel have the daunting task of meeting federal requirements plus the frightening responsibility of meeting the needs and approval of students.  Maybe extending a little grace to those workers who truly have the best intentions and are striving to make everyone happy could be a new goal for everyone.  Many on the outside don’t really know just how serious the federal regulations are.  For instance, serving breakfast to a kindergarten through 5th-grade student must have less than 540 mg of sodium – it’s quite a challenge to find a packaged product that is low in sodium, much less create a whole plate of food that meets that sodium requirement.  Even fat-free milk has 130 mg of sodium.  Not to mention… a breakfast that kids will eat.  Most kids are accustomed to a quick run through the donut shop or fast food.
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Federal regulations in school are incredibly different from our real-world lives.  And you might be asking, why do schools have to adhere to federal regulations?  Great question, it’s because any school that participates in the National School Lunch Program gets reimbursed by the government for meals, so schools have to follow the guidelines and regulations that are provided to be eligible for that reimbursement money.  Federally, reimbursement rates are set every year, and schools get reimbursed for every “reimbursable” meal they serve.  A meal has to be classified as “reimbursable” based on specific criteria that the government sets.  For instance, each lunch has to have 3 of 5 components.  The components are meat, grain, vegetable, fruit, and milk.  If a student goes through the line and doesn’t have 3 of the 5 components on the plate, then that meal is not reimbursable, so the school would get no federal reimbursement for it.  Surprisingly, these are just the easy rules.  Schools also have to ensure the vegetables they serve throughout the week are dark green/red/orange/starchy/etc.  There are also rules for calories, fat, serving sizes, and much more.  At this point, you might be getting a bigger picture of the complications of school lunch.

Let’s revisit the meal I served my kid many years ago, and let’s only look at the sodium: little smokies, mac & cheese, and canned green beans.  My quick review of the labels tells me that the smokies were 660 mg. sodium, mac & cheese was 710 mg. of sodium, and the canned green beans were a low, low number of 380 mg. of sodium.  Hmmmm – that’s 1750 mg. of sodium.  Let’s hope I served water and not soda with this meal!  A school lunch for a kindergarten through 5th-grade student limits sodium to 1110 mg.  Looks like my meal from home doesn’t measure up to healthy!

Needless to say, creating a healthy meal and meeting federal regulations is quite a challenge.

But maybe school lunch is more than just regulations and what’s on the plate.  Aside from the fact that some students absolutely depend on their school lunch (and breakfast), and that may be the only full meal they get for the day, the cafeteria is basically another classroom at the school.  Learning is taking place without paper and pen.  Students are learning how to socialize, have good conversation skills, build relationships, and be exposed to new foods and so much more.  When the lunch lady calls them by name, that makes them feel like they are special.  When their teacher sits and eats with them, they form stronger bonds, and that can make the classroom even better.  Plus, teachers get a totally expanded look into the students and their lives and maybe some of the obstacles they are facing that they maybe don’t talk about.  Learning more about students and what makes them who they are can create better understanding in the classroom as well.  
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So, the next time you see your lunch ladies, give them a high five.  Tell them thanks because they love the kids, and what they are doing might actually be rocket science!  Also, know that adhering to federal regulations and keeping everyone happy is a real challenge.  And, the next time you have an opportunity to dine with the kids – take it – get to know them – make them feel special – the benefits will be Huge!
Region 7 ESC - Geri Barrett - Child Nutrition Geri Barrett is a Child Nutrition Technician with Region 7 ESC Child Nutrition Department.  Geri has been with the ESC for 15 years and provides training and technical assistance to school nutrition personnel participating in federally funded nutrition programs.