by Marion Nestle
Jul 23 2009

School meals: it’s good to feed kids

The USDA has a couple of new reports out on school meals.  One looks at the dismal rates of participation in the School Breakfast program.  Only about 30% of those eligible actually get breaksfast.  How come?  Kids are more likely to eat the breakfast when it is served in the classroom (rather than the lunchroom) and when they are given time to eat it.

The second study also proves the obvious: kids who eat breakfast eat less junk food and are likely to be better nourished (and, therefore, behave and learn better).

I know the USDA has to do these studies in order to satisfy taxpayers’ investment in the programs but shouldn’t our society ensure that all hungry kids are fed decently?  So many of the financial problems with the school meals programs could be solved if they were made universal (and we didn’t need to spend all that money to determine eligibility and make sure no kid gets a meal she isn’t entitled to).  Universal school meals would also take away the poverty stigma.  And yes, let’s serve breakfasts in classrooms and give kids time to eat.  After all, the research backs up those ideas, no?

  • Yedda

    As a high school teacher I couldn’t agree with you more. Based on a student’s behavior and performance in school on any given day, I think I could accurately guess whether or not they had eaten breakfast. So many kids go hungy because they don’t want to take free meals at school. We can’t start moving up Malsow’s hierarchy if they aren’t getting fed.

  • Feeding in the classroom does sound like a great idea. Think about homeroom, you just goof off in there, a perfect time to eat.
    The only thing is that school lunch is so gross! I remember just not eating or just eating the bun because the mystery meat was so nasty looking. I just read about a college on the greenhorns blog that started serving all local vegetable and grass fed beef and milk. That is revolutionary and truly a step in the right direction.

  • Janet Camp

    I never let my kids eat school lunch because I do not think it is healthy. In the 80’s they went to pizza, “hamburgers”, with only a bit of iceberg lettuce being the “vegetable”. I packed their lunches until they were old enough to earn a bit of money to buy what they wanted, not because I approved of that, but because by then, their peers had way more influence than I did and you have to pick your battles. Luckily, we lived in the city and they usually got fairly decent deli food (sandwiches) for lunch. I didn’t approve of “open-campus”, but the school didn’t ask me, sadly.

    I have to confess that as adults, they have told me that they threw away a lot of the apples I put in their lunch bags and traded the milk money for chips. The whole culture around food is badly twisted.

  • Universal would be great. Another ideal – how about providing high quality REAL foods that are prepared well (and teaching kids about where food comes from, etc). We’re poisoning kids in school now.

    You know the old saying – you can pay now or pay later? Pay now for better food that will nourish the next generation or pay later to provide healthcare for all the damage done.

  • Kelly

    In theory, I think it’s a great idea to feed all kids breakfast in the classroom every day. In reality, though…I don’t see how it’s going to be easy.

    As a teacher, I wonder who is going to prepare, serve, and clean up that many meals. Teachers don’t have time to do everything they need to do on the clock as it is; it’s unreasonable to add yet another task to this schedule.

    As a parent, I have real concerns about what my children would actually be served. At home, they eat a healthy breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, and whole grains. No transfats, HFCS, etc to be seen. I wouldn’t want them to participate in our local school’s breakfast program now – fried, greasy, and highly processed.

    Also – if it’s going to be provided to all children, you need to account for the needs of all children which can mean gluten-, peanut-, dairy-free, etc.

    I’m not saying it can’t or shouldn’t be done…but it’s going to take a lot of planning!!

  • Susan

    I’m an elementary teacher teaching in a district where a lot of students are eligible for free meals. While I agree there are many good reasons for serving meals in classrooms I have some reservations.

    We have minimal janitorial services now due to budget cutbacks. Cleaning of floors is done once a week. My concerns are who is going to clean up after these meals? I spend an extra hour after school after class parties cleaning my room. Food served daily is going to result in class teaching time shortened due to cleaning up after meals, or not cleaning and the resulting problems.

  • Robert

    Our two-year-old daughter is in a kita (pre-school) in Germany for four hours each day. All the children fed once at 9 am and again at noon. There is a small room next to her classroom set aside for this purpose. The food is healthy and prepared fresh each day. This nourishes the children and this also teaches them about the social aspects of eating with others.

  • Sheila

    It is a national shame to have so many children coming to school hungry, impairing their learning. But, let’s not assume that the children who eat breakfast at home are actually getting any better nutrition other than calories. Many of the “breakfast” foods sold in stores and served in homes in this country are shocking lacking in nutrition and shockingly high in simple sugars and artery-clogging fats. I can see a big potential benefit to feeding all children breakfast at school, especially if it can be done with excellent nutrition and in conjunction with classroom learning about nutrition and making healthy choices. A carton of skim milk, a piece of fresh fruit, and a whole-grain choice could be easy for children to self-serve from a classroom table and easy to clean up, as well as dramatically improve the comfort and learning ability of the children.

  • Daniel K Ithaca, NY

    Breakfast for all is great. Also, how about getting rid of the ‘snack bar’ and ice cream for sale. The school day is pretty short. I’m pretty sure the students will survive without having dessert with their lunch.

    It seems then the state depts of education would then need to INVEST in healthy school lunches instead of seeing it as a loss (and schools trying to cover costs through junk sales ).

  • Lisa Knoxville TN

    There just isn’t enough time built into the school day for the kids to eat lunch without gulping it down. Isn’t that unhealthy, too?
    It at least set them up for behaviors linked to over eating later on. Also, the school lunches have extra fats and sugars added to meet the required calories for the program, don’t they? My children get sick with heartburn, vomiting, etc. from school provided lunches. We usually don’t eat all that processed stuff at home.

  • There has certainly been a lot of justifiable blame placed on the quality of meals offered to students in schools. There are, though, a number of providers of healthy school lunches who have grown their business exactly because of the increased public awareness of obesity and malnourishment in children. There is a trend in the private sector to offer healthy, locally sourced, and nutritionally superior lunches to students in both public and private schools. When more parents are involved in deciding on school lunch programs, the best interests of the students are the priority. This is in contrast to the ‘standard’ school lunch service whose days may be numbered as general awareness increases (and governmental budgets decrease).