Not any more, at least in the school cafeteria. Kids with a sweet tooth may have been unhappy with changes made in school lunches in the last several years. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, a federal law passed 5 years ago, was intended to reduce fat, sodium, and sugar, while increasing the use of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. That Act is now up for reauthorization. According to a recent Harvard study, kids are eating more veggies and fruits at school. For the 51% of kids who qualify for free and reduced lunches in the public schools (meaning their families are 130% below the federal poverty threshold), these healthier choices may reduce their likelihood of childhood obesity and expose them to a diversity of foods. However, some cafeteria managers (and students) are unhappy with the new tastes and sodium/ whole grain requirements, although the Act does offer flexibility and even mentoring for struggling cafeterias. According to USDA data, fewer kids are buying lunches but there’s an increase in the number of students taking advantage of free and reduced lunches. Participation is anonymous and younger kids are typically unaware of the support. When students reach middle and high school age, there can be a sense of shame associated with receiving support for meals. I personally know of students who have gone hungry to demonstrate their “freedom” from low income.
I have to say that some concern about the quality of school lunches seems valid. The main dish is usually frozen and then reheated; it used to be “home cooked” by cafeteria workers. The whole grain choices have been especially unpalatable when cooked in bulk. Check out Ruth Morgan’s Chapel Hill Snippets blog for photos of a few of the unappetizing and unidentifiable foods that kids still face. The Do Something organization ran a program of student advocacy in cafeteria choices called Fed up. Over 576,000 high school students voted in an “eat it” or “toss it” review of 7,000+ photos of school lunches. Overall, students preferred to eat healthy food and tossed what they perceived as unhealthy offerings. More than half the students had nothing good to say about their cafeteria food.
Another issue is that despite the healthier cafeteria foods, there are “competitive” offerings which students may prefer, especially at high school where they have access to vending machines, a la carte offerings, and off-campus fare. Elementary students still often celebrate monthly birthdays with sweets. Back in the day, we had many more sweets in both the cafeteria and classroom celebrations, but kids were active. Now they are glued to electronic devices, which is a another post altogether.