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Raising Needham: What's For Lunch?

It’s a decade-old question that frustrates students, parents, schools and our government.

I have never been a fan of lunch. Maybe it is because what passed as lunch at school when I was growing up was inedible, and many say not much has changed.

When my daughter began kindergarten last year, I decided to pack her lunches until I got a lay of the land. I studied the school lunch menu, asked other parents their opinions and finally allowed my daughter to buy lunch on the rare occasion she liked what was on the menu, which wasn’t often. Then I asked her what she thought. Aside from the thrill of standing in the lunch line and buying lunch, there was not much to report. The pizza was too salty, the mac and cheese too dry and the pasta didn’t have enough sauce. Last year was a bust.

I didn’t fare much better at home. Her lunch boxes came back half full and she was desperate for an afternoon snack at pick-up. What was going wrong?

I guess I wasn’t the only one who thought a change was in order. Our sometimes-stuck-in-the-Dark-Ages government finally decided to update the national school lunch requirements called Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act as a part of Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign. I guess with staggering obesity rates and the in vogue "farm to fork" movement came pressure to make some changes. Higher fiber, lower fat and lower calorie meals are replacing those famous deep fried chicken bites, tator tots and syrup-filled fruit cups. I’m still not sure, however, if pizza counts as a serving of vegetables.

Obviously, I applaud the efforts and have jumped on board. Do I send my daughter to the lunch line every day because of these changes? No, but I have been keeping a close eye on the countless emails flying around town about the changes and they haven’t been good. Parents are complaining of too much sodium, too few calories for the high school athletes and no flavor in general.

Parents also are complaining about lunch time being too short and the vending machines being filled with junk that the older kids fill up on when they either don’t like their lunch or don’t get enough of their lunch. In defense of the last two concerns, I have never seen my kids eat as much or as varied a lunch as they did this summer when their camp lunch was 45 minutes long. Now, I know a 45-minute lunch is not an option for public schools, but as much as 5 minutes more could help kids slow down, make healthier choices, chew their food and try some new food.

And, for the love of lunch, clean out those vending machines of their junk. They make amazing high protein, healthy calorie snack bars and dried fruit/trail mix packs these days. Those snacks may be a healthy way to boost the calorie count for those who need it.

We need to start thinking of lunch time as food education time and not a race to get low quality food in our children just to say they have been fed.

So, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and start educating my daughter. I did this by empowering her. I told her about the new school lunch guidelines, printed out the school lunch menu and allowed her to choose a few times a month she’d like to buy lunch. I asked her to tell me what she likes and doesn’t when she buys and why. I took her lunch box shopping and ditched the traditional sandwich, gold fish and apple lunch for a bento box.

I have to say that the changes I have seen thus far are shocking. She tells me about the food being served at school and how it is different from last year. She eats all—yes, all—of her bento box daily. She even packs her own bento from time to time. As for the food served at school, she thinks it is better than last year and seems proud that she can decide what is best for her to eat.

Yes, I am lucky I get to start all this food education with a first grader and not a high schooler used to the old lunch ways. I get that.

Are the new school lunch guidelines perfect? Not yet. But just as it is taking me some time to allow my daughter to eat school lunches every day, it is taking America’s kids time to digest what for some are startling changes in their lunch.

I say stick with it, voice your opinion to local school officials, gather other parents to educate and change what needs to change but, above all, please don’t abandon the idea that we need to eat healthier and teach our children to eat healthier.  

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