Healthy Cafeteria Food Doesn’t Have to Be “Nasty”

Public schools in many states are eagerly promoting healthy eating for children, and that’s a good first step toward making kids—well, healthier. (If more of them would bring back mandatory physical education, we’d really have something to talk about.)

Unfortunately, some schools have merely replaced “mystery meat” with something equally unappetizing, leaving daily offerings unrecognizable and unpalatable to hungry students. And when America’s self-anointed food-police groups put their soup ladles in? As you might imagine, things get even more tasteless.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has focused on dramatically limiting the intake of sugar and salt, while pushing whole grains and vegetables. (CPS’s menu changes, the Chicago Tribune notes, “exceed existing U.S. Department of Agriculture meal standards,” which last month were updated to include “increased food requirements” for schools that “leave relatively few discretionary calories for fats and added sugars.”)

These nutritional revisions to CPS’s cafeteria menus aren't sitting well with kids’ stomachs. New data from CPS reveals that some kids quit eating lunch entirely because they’d rather stay hungry until they get home than eat “nasty” cafeteria food.

A CPS food service administrator told the Chicago Tribune she’s concerned about the marked increase in kids skipping lunch, but claims the district’s healthy eating initiative has been successful at serving a greater good:

We are thrilled that 70 percent of CPS students choose to eat lunch at school. While there has been a slight decline in participation, it does not reflect the measurable and positive gains we have made as a school district in making improvements to the nutritional quality of our school breakfast and lunch programs.

One sixth-grader boasted that she counts herself among the 30 percent of CPS students (i.e., those not among the 70% eating school lunches) who choose not to eat lunch at school because the “food is disgusting.” She said she’ll continue filling up on candy until her school offers “something good that’s healthy.”

Chefs and nutritionists who know how to create healthful and tasty cafeteria options empathize with frustrated students. “Cooking flavorful food from scratch is not rocket science,” says Kate Adamick, one such “institutional” food specialist.

It’s hard enough for nutritionists to craft healthy menus that kids will eat. But here come the self-deputized food police:

The “Physicians Committee” for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an animal-rights organization whose membership is long on PETA and short on medical degrees, is pushing a bill to mandate the adoption of vegetarian and vegan meals in schools.

Politicians are taking kid-favorite flavored milks off the menu because of the public health movement’s sugar paranoia.

British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver tried to revamp school lunches in Huntington, WV (“America’s Fattest City”). He swapped out French fries and soda for brown rice and skim milk, but the kids took one look at the new food and said, "yuck." In a later episode, Oliver returned to Huntington to find most kids bringing their own (less healthy) food from home.

A school nutritionist’s first job is making sure all kids are fed—even those who don’t know kale from grass clippings and who can’t pronounce “kohlrabi.” Once we’ve got that covered, then we can fret about lowering their salt intake and haggle with animal-rights activists.

And along the way, how about a heaping helping of education about the health benefits of common sense, moderation, and actually enjoying food?

Note: This article was updated after publication.

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