(NaturalNews) This should not even be a question for most parents. But, unfortunately it is. When asked what she thought of the school lunch program in public schools, Camele McIntosh, certified holistic health practitioner and store manager for Harvest Health Foods in Grand Rapids, Michigan, responded, "Disgusting. It's absolutely disgusting."
She packs a lunch full of organic foods for her children on a daily basis and sees the decline of the school lunch program as the result of a lack of caring on the part of a large portion of American people.
"Nobody cares anymore, nobody respects the organic farmer. They think it's best to buy cheaper products to save money, but in the end, those products rob us of our health and cost us even more money," she said.
In 2006, more than 30.1 million children consumed a hot lunch each day under the National School Lunch Program, according to the USDA's Web site. Although all food served under this program meets Federal nutrition requirements, decisions about what foods are served and how they are prepared is decided upon by local schools.
Ann Cooper, known as the Renegade Lunch Lady and author of the new book "Lunch Lessons: Changing the way we feed our children," said the current state of school lunches across the country is probably even worse than most people think.
"It's all frozen, processed foods," she said. "Google any school district in the country and you'll find menus filled with pizza pockets, corn dogs, chicken nuggets."
Originally, all of the food served in public schools was homemade and cooked on site. By the time frozen foods became more prevalent, it was time for all of the lunch ladies and their equipment to retire.
"Big business said to the schools, 'why cook when you can easily use all these frozen, prepared foods?'" Cooper said.
Part of the issue is obviously money – specifically not enough of it. The main challenge for many school districts is to pull together a menu that fits into the budget, while also trying to appeal to hundreds of tiny palettes that have grown up with a diet filled with mostly processed foods. Food that is good for them usually doesn't taste good to them. Unhealthy food is generally cheaper to buy, and contains preservatives, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) – all the fixings that make things taste especially good to children (and adults as well, for that matter) and keep them coming back for more.
Cooper said that schools are reimbursed $2.30 for every hot lunch served. Two-thirds of that goes toward payroll and overhead, which leaves about $.80 left, which must include the required serving of milk.
"How is it possible to serve a healthy meal to children on less than $.80?" Cooper asks.
"What part of the chicken does the McNugget actually come from anyway?" is a question that was posed in Morgan Spurlock's documentary "Super Size Me." As funny and tongue-in-cheek as it may be, it's a question that most parents should ask with regard to the food that is being served in schools.
A quick call to the food services director at the school can let a parent know what their children are eating and where it's coming from. A school in Kent County, MI is trying to make an effort to offer more healthful choices, such as no fried foods, baked selections, lean meats and more veggies. However, parents should watch out for the HFCS and trans fats that come along with packaged and processed foods. Although a child may walk away with a tray full of baked chicken, a side of green beans, canned peaches, mashed potatoes, and juice, it's probably not as healthy as it looks. There more than likely is butter and salt in the green beans and mashed potatoes, and HFCS and added sugar in the peaches and juice.
So, what can parents do? It may sound extreme, but we might have to go back to the old fashioned way of preparing food. In 1914, a health officer in Florida did an experiment in a rural school to see the results of giving each child a half a pint of milk each day. In addition to the milk, they eventually served a bowl of soup along with the milk.
The results were so outstanding, that according to the USDA Web site: "a group of mothers and the principal planned and carried out the project serving the children a hot bowl of soup with crackers and one-half pint of milk. The meat and some of the potatoes were donated by the mothers. They also furnished the utensils, and the principal supplied the vegetables grown in the school garden."
Obviously, during the early 1900s, all mothers were stay-at-home-moms and could devote a generous portion of their time to a project such as this. They never had to worry about a commute, a full-time job, their children's extra-curricular activities and the chauffeur duties that come along with them. But these are our children, and every effort should be made to ensure them a lifetime of healthy eating habits and the chance to know what real food tastes like.
Cooper said that parents can begin by checking to see if the Wellness Program in their school district is being implemented and followed, and to make sure everyone involved is being held accountable. Don't be afraid to be vocal at PTA and school board meetings.
"It is everyone's responsibility – not just the schools, and not just the parents – to teach healthy food habits," Cooper said. "Of the children born in 2000, 40 to 45 percent of them will have diabetes and be insulin-dependant. This is the first generation that has a lower life expectancy than that of the previous generation."
Switching to more natural foods will not only improve the physical health of children, it can have benefits on their mental health as well.
"There are people out there, including children, who are helped physically and mentally by eating organic," said Kathleen Wood, a certified clinical nutritionist and employee with Harvest Health Foods. "Kids are realizing they are feeling a whole lot better when they eat the right stuff. They stay away from the bad stuff – it makes such a difference to them."
McIntosh also believes that switching to more natural and organic foods and being more in tune with what one's body can and can't handle can make quite an impact.
She recalled a woman who had come into the store frequently with her seven-year old autistic son, who was unable to speak. She and the woman got to chatting one day and McIntosh suggested that the boy may have a gluten and/or dairy intolerance. The mother cut both out of his diet and came back to the store two weeks later.
"Within two weeks of cutting these foods out of his diet, the little boy started saying Mommy and Daddy. She was ecstatic – it was the first time that she had heard her little boy talk to her," McIntosh said.
About the author
A married mother of two young children, Julie Hurley is a freelance writer with a strong interest in natural living. She is also the Grand Rapids Healthy Food Examiner for Examiner.com. Visit her page at: tinyurl.com/healthyfoodexaminer.