It took over fifteen years, but the USDA finally kicked off some major changes to school lunches this September — however, not everyone is thrilled with the changes. Students across the country are now instigating school lunch revolts, food strikes and other nonsense aimed at the new school lunch policy. One group of students, from Sharon Springs, Kansas have even posted a video on YouTube called “We Are Hungry.” The video, which has reached 993,594 views as of this post, shows students fainting in gym class, crawling on the ground unable to walk and buying junk food, all apparently due to them being starved to death by the new school lunch policies. Beyond the video, these students have started a Facebook page designed to allow people to voice their complaints about the new policy. Honestly, I give these teens props for coming up with innovative and peaceful ways to fight against policies they don’t like, but it’s seriously distressing to see that they’re fighting so hard to get poor quality food and huge portions back. But what’s most alarming isn’t the fact that students are protesting the new healthier school lunches, but that adults, who should know better, are supporting their efforts. Teachers helped the kids write and produce the “We Are Hungry” video and parents across the country are sounding off on posts and Facebook saying that the new policy is starving kids. Shame on all of these adults. This is ridiculousness beyond anything I’ve ever seen and a perfect example of what happens when you don’t raise your kids on healthy food. Keep reading to see why these school lunch boycotts are unfounded.

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Image by Flickr User USDAgov

Is the new school lunch policy starving kids?

In a word no. Students and parents who are against the new policies keep saying stuff like, “Portions are smaller” and “There’s not enough calories in the lunches” and “I want more protein in my lunch!” Yet none of these arguments stack up. Below are some myths floating around the web.

New school lunches cut calories: The new school lunch policy (pdf) mandates MORE calories than the previous school lunch policy did, with a range of 750-850 calories for teens. The old policy allowed only 825 calories per meal. Calories have gone up not down in school lunches.

New school lunches lack protein: School lunches must provide 1/3 of a child’s protein needs either in meat or meat alternative form, which is 100% appropriate, considering kids should also be eating breakfast, dinner and snacks each day. The National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine notes that teens need about 0.71-0.73 g/kg/d of protein (pdf). For a kid at a healthy weight, this would be about 46 to 52 grams of protein per day. One ounce of lean meat, chicken, or fish, low-fat cheese, a cup of milk, two tablespoons of peanut butter, an egg or half cup of beans equals six to eight grams of protein per serving. Kids get about 2-4 grams of protein per serving of whole grain breads and cereals and about 1-3 grams in a serving of most vegetables. With these figures in mind, a typical school lunch menu shows that kids are getting a decent amount of protein from school lunches – the rest of their daily protein needs should come from breakfast, dinner and snacks.

New school lunch portions are smaller: As noted above, new school lunches have more, not fewer calories. The big difference here is that the calories are healthier. While a larger bulk of calories in school lunches used to come from meat, fries and pizza, now more of those calories come from veggies, fruits and whole grains, as they should. Yes, portions of meat and fries and such have shrunk, but portions of fruits and veggies have grown. Portions haven’t gotten smaller, they’ve simply been more fairly distributed among the food groups.

Kids burn tons of calories per day: At the center of this debate are parents and kids spouting off that football players and other student athletes burn countless numbers of calories per day, thus, need bigger lunches. Not true. A small number of kids in America are active. Most kids today get very little exercise. The kids who made the “We Are Hungry” video are the exception, not the rule. 18% of teens in the United States are obese and another 15%+  are overweight or on their way to becoming overweight. A recent major study shows that abdominal obesity, or belly fat, in adolescent boys is up 65% from 1998, while adolescent girls have increased their belly fat by 70%. The CDC notes that one in five U.S. teens has an unhealthy cholesterol level and that in almost all cases, teens have high cholesterol because they’re overweight not due to some weird health problem. Most teens eat too much and don’t exercise and it’s a major problem. In fact, if nothing changes in the U.S. researchers estimate that more than one in five young people will be obese by 2020.

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What’s the real problem here?

So, calories and overall food portion sizes haven’t really been cut and kids are getting 1/3 of their protein via school lunches, so what’s this boycott really about? The students who made the We Are Hungry clearly state on their video page, “We are excited about being offered more healthy fruits and vegetables.” Claiming it’s other issues, not the added produce making them upset. But how true is the statement above. The media has run many interviews with students who are boycotting lunches, and we’re seeing stuff like…

  • At Middle School 104 in Gramercy Park on Friday, several seventh graders pronounced vegetables “gross.
  • I just throw them out,” says one student of the fruit offered in school lunches.
  • One student told the New York Times the following about choosing the corner store over her school cafeteria, “Why would I come over here for a chicken and apple when I can get a cookie and some Gatorade and some gummies?

The comments above aren’t unique. Talk to any kid who attends public school and they’ll tell you, “Everyone throws away their fruits and veggies.” It makes sense that kids aren’t happy. Last year they could grab three slices of pizza dipped in ranch, a cookie and some chocolate milk for lunch. This year they can only snag one piece of pizza, regular milk and (gasp) vegetables and fruit. We’ve introduced healthier food after decades of kids being allowed to eat junk food for lunch, so of course it’s a switch. Kids raised on junk, not surprisingly, like junk food. It’s directly our fault and the government’s fault that kids toss their vegetables and fruit. As a country, we haven’t built healthy habits in kids and now we’re seeing the result of that – food boycotts. That said, we shouldn’t give up on healthy food for our kids.

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Image by Flickr User USDAgov

Adults need to grow a backbone

These boycotts aren’t new. Last year, one L.A. school district got rid of chocolate and strawberry milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other food high in fat, sugar and sodium and started serving healthy fare such as more fruits and veggies, vegetarian options and choices like quinoa salad. However, students rejected the new lunches and according to the district,  kids were suffering from, “Headaches, stomach pains and even anemia.” The district’s solution was to give up. They tore up the new healthy menu and now offer burgers daily, “So kids will eat.” What a great plan! Let kids raised on unhealthy food make the rules.

Here’s what I think. Adults and school districts should grow a backbone. Letting kids bully you into giving them back their pizza and fries  – is that really the best way to teach kids about nutrition? Fact: hungry kids will eventually eat. Actual hungry kids will not toss veggies and fruit into the garbage as long as those veggies aren’t overcooked and the fruit is fresh. Not one kid I know has ever starved to death if Happy Meals and chips are withheld. They may complain, they may whine, but they won’t starve. That said, I do know kids who were not raised with veggies and fruits, whose parents decided to start making changes, and it took a long time for those changes to take hold. It can take many months, even a year or more, for kids to build new healthy eating habits. Schools, and let’s face it, many parents, serve poor quality food to kids and have for years. Diet changes take time and our kids deserve the chance to get used to healthy food choices. When adults cave in and replace those healthy choices with “kid-friendly junk” food, we take that chance away. Adults need to act like adults, and serve the best food possible prepared in tasty ways, and simply deal with the whining and boycotts until kids get on board. If school lunch is unappealing to your child, you can always send a healthy packed lunch to school.

What do you think? Should we go back to serving kids unhealthy huge portions of food to stop the boycotts or stick with healthier meals until kids get used to them? Tell us in the comments.