In recent years, many school districts across the U.S. have been pushing to improve the quality of school lunches, offering more vegetables or cutting back on high-calories food items. Some schools are even removing chocolate milk from the school lunch menu.
Not everyone is happy with this, including New York Times contributor Mark Oppenheimer. In a recent blog post, “Let Them Drink Chocolate,” he cites a study that examined the effects of what he calls a “sadistic cafeteria experiment.” In short, researchers looked at what happened when 11 Oregon elementary schools took chocolate milk off their menu and offered plain milk instead.
Oppenheimer argues that this is an example of how schools are being overly controlling of students' food behavior. He also says society as a whole is depriving youngsters of too many “good” things—such as sugary cereals and ice cream—rather than teaching them moderation.
Not so fast, I say. Even if schools are slowly moving toward healthier lunch options, I want everyone to recognize that three important things are true: U.S. obesity levels remain high, many kids lack access to healthy foods, and many children are physically inactive.
Since in many cases, school food offers kids their only opportunity for nutritious meals, it makes sense for those lunches to be healthy. In addition, we are starting to see data suggesting that improved school meal standards (for example, more fiber and less fat) are associated with lower childhood obesity rates.
Therefore, I think that my taxpayer money should go toward healthier school lunch items, not sugary drinks and junk food.
In terms of Oppenheimer’s plea for dietary moderation, of course there is little harm in drinking chocolate milk and eating hamburgers once in a while. But close to 30 percent of adolescents are already eating fast food at least three times a week, and a new study suggests that the food we’re serving at home is enough to contribute to a high risk of obesity in children anyway. So, why do we need more fried chicken and French fries in our schools?
Oppenheimer points out that the banning of chocolate milk is associated with both a decrease in milk sales and the number of students eating school lunches. But does that mean healthy school lunch programs are failing? Or that society is already too focused on what goes into our children’s mouths?
I don’t think so. For me, that only implies that we need come up with creative solutions to help students make better choices. In some cases, that may be enlisting the help of a nutritionist or chef who can help educate both parents and kids about healthy foods.
Implementing healthy school lunch program is a big challenge, but its benefits are equally significant: a lifetime of less suffering from chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, and less money spent on medical treatment for these conditions. Let us not be distracted by setbacks and continue making healthy food accessible to students.