Revolt

09.28.12

Nutritious School Lunches, or the New Hunger Games?

After a years-long crusade, activists including Michelle Obama have finally landed more nutritious lunches in public schools. But rather than giving thanks, hungry kids are pleading, ‘Please, first lady, may I have some more?’ Kevin Fallon on the response from health experts.

America, your children are hungry. And they’re going to sing about it. 

“Give me some seconds, I, I need to get some food today,” croons Callahan Grund, a 16-year-old football player from Wallace County High School in Sharon Springs, Kan. “My friends are in the corner store getting junk so they don’t waste away …” 

Set to the tune of fun.’s chart-topping hit “We Are Young,” “We Are Hungry” is a video made by a group of Wallace County students and teachers who are tired of their stomachs grumbling after new regulations mandated healthier lunches be served in school. In the clip, which has already accrued over 500,000 views on YouTube, Grund and his classmates are seen collapsing during sports practice, stealing food off each other’s lunch trays, and frowning over puny-sized pieces of meat. “Tonight, we are hungry / Set the policy on fire, it can burn brighter than the sun.” 

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All across the nation, schools are debuting new lunches featuring smaller portions, more fruits and vegetables, and fewer calories, mandated (PDF) as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. And students are debuting their rage. Bring on the Hunger Games.  

Two years ago, Michelle Obama launched her Let’s Move initiative, a program aimed at making child nutrition and fitness a national priority—a key component of which involved making school lunch more healthful. Accompanying the movement was a first lady media onslaught in which Barack’s better half promoted her agenda on Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres, and Jay Leno’s talk shows. Even Sasha Fierce herself, Beyoncé, got involved, lending a peppy song-and-dance routine to the cause, while Rachael Ray joined the crusade for new federal guidelines for better school lunches. 

Then there was Jamie Oliver’s fat-shaming spectacular, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, which pointed the exploitative reality-TV high beams on Middle American lunch ladies serving up pizza and French fries to obese students and scolded them for slowly killing our nation’s youth. 

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The menu of lessons that we were supposed to digest: the U.S. has a childhood obesity problem. Poor nutrition in schools is partly to blame. Making school lunches more nutritious will make children healthier. Our communities will be happier because of that. We should all be grateful for this change. 

Instead, the kids are revolting. And the cries of hunger pangs echoing in the chorus of the Wallace County High video are just the beginning. 

“I think it’s kind of ridiculous that people say how much we get to eat when there are a lot of kids that are big,” Hunter Wishek, a 6-foot-5 football player from Clarence, Mo., told Fox News. “When we can’t have our meat and bread, for a guy, it’s not fun.” 

Though he found the whole-wheat pita in his new lunch to be “nasty,” Mississippi fifth-grader Marecas Wilson says, “I was just trying to eat it so I wouldn’t be hungry later on.” Other students aren’t pleased that perennial favorites—chicken nuggets, for example—are being replaced with less delectable fare, while some just wish the food they were being offered was enough to sustain them throughout the day. “The fruits and vegetables are good at first but once they wear off, I get hungry,” says Rachelle Chinn, a freshman also from Clarence. “It’s just not enough to get through the day.” 

“We would eat our pencils at school if they had nutritional value,” Kansas seventh-grader Zach Eke told KAKETV.

Even teachers are noticing. “We hear them complaining around 1:30 or 2 that they are already hungry,” Linda O’Connor, an English teacher at Wallace County High who worked with her famished students on the “We Are Hungry” song, told ABC News. “It’s all the students, literally all the students … you can set your watch to it.” 

Are these new lunches really that bleak?

According to the nutrition standards (PDF) released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January 2012, high school students must receive a minimum of 700 and a maximum of 850 calories in their lunches. (For students in middle school, the range is 600 to 700 calories). That means that, for grades 9-12, the standard lunch includes a cup of fruit, a cup of vegetables, two ounces of a grain, two ounces of meat, and a cup of milk. 

“Let me just say this,” Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at NYU and author of What to Eat, tells The Daily Beast. “Eight-hundred fifty calories ought to be plenty—far more than enough—to tide a kid over until after school.” 

The government’s dietary guidelines state that teenagers should consume between 1,800 calories a day for the most sedentary to 2,400 calories a day for those who are exceptionally active. If students ate three meals a day—and no snacks—with the same caloric value as their school lunches, they would even exceed their recommended intake. 

Yet many students, chiefly athletes, continue to gripe about the rumblies in their tumblies. That oh-so-witty singer in the “We Are Hungry” video is, after all, a football player. Hunter Wishek claims to weigh 210 pounds and require 4,700 calories to maintain his rigorous training regimen. How could he possibly subsist on a sad 850-calorie lunch? It’s that kind of question that blogs blasting “Michelle Obama’s Share-the-Starvation Lunch Program” have seized on.  

But the school-lunch reforms were never supposed to fuel growing gridiron boys. “It’s obvious that athletes need more calories,” Amie Hamlin, executive director of NY Coalition for Healthy School Food, tells The Daily Beast. “But the school lunch program isn’t intended for athletes. It’s intended for food-insecure households”—the ones unable or unwilling to provide balanced nutrition to their children. Besides, she says, athlete or not, it’s unreasonable to think that a school lunch will sustain any student into the twilight hours of the night when a sports practice or other activity may end. If a student goes home after the bell rings, the routine—and healthy habit—is to eat a light snack. Even if they’re trapped at school, athletes should be doing the same thing. If these kids are that hungry, the school should be providing it, she says. “If that’s what sports’ fundraising needs to include, then so be it.” 

Even the USDA, which enforces these new lunch regulations, endorses snack time. “It’s not surprising that some youngsters will in the middle of the day be hungry,” says USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, saying the administration is working to create snack programs for schools. “I remember my two boys when they came back from school they were always hungry, we always had snacks prepared for them.” 

There’s another issue at play here, says Mandi Pek, a New York-based registered dietician and nutritionist. Kids are turning up their noses at the new, healthier food they’re being given and chucking it in the trash—which could certainly explain hunger among the pickier eaters used to their chicken nuggets. “If they had more grilled chicken instead of canned pears, the students may actually eat the food that they’re given,” she tells The Daily Beast. 

It’s one thing to impose an overhauled meal system in schools, one that affects, according to the USDA, 32 million children. But the kids are mostly clueless about what they’re eating. “Drastic changes should not be made without education,” Pek says. Agrees Nestle: “Where are adults in these schools? Why aren’t they working with the kids on issues of health and common sense?” 

Beyond education—and stopping short of more major reforms—a lot of these issues could be solved through collaboration. Schools could ask, for example, what the kids want to, or will, eat, and work with them on developing a menu. It’s the age-old trick, says Pek. Young kids will eat healthier foods at home when their parents involve them in the cooking. The same principle applies here. “Maybe serve a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a chicken nugget,” she says. “Maybe that would be an easier transition.” 

But even with health professionals singing the praises of healthy, portion-controlled lunches (though perhaps their cause could benefit from an original song), the tension between them and those opposing the changes is tightening. On Thursday, congressional representatives from Iowa and Kansas responded to the outrage by introducing the No Hungry Kids Act, which would replace the current school-lunch legislation with one requiring calorie limits. 

Hamlin, of the NY Coalition for Healthy School Food, calls such a move outrageous. “If you have a 225 lb. high school student who should really weigh 150 lbs., and they’re 75 lbs. overweight, it does take more calories to maintain that weight. Yeah, they’re hungry. But do they need those extra calories in the school lunches? Is it the taxpayers’ job to pay for more calories so that they can maintain that weight?” 

Food for thought.