Generations of students who have dined in school cafeterias have had to suffer through unhealthy, starch-filled, processed and often unsavory options. Fortunately, it seems things are slowly turning around. School districts in several states are pioneering healthy, cost-efficient cafeteria choices, and the effects on students are encouraging. Additionally, some students are taking matters into their own hands and protesting the low quality and high cost of their lunch options, and their voices are finally being heard.
Researchers involved in the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program in Ithaca, New York have found a simple, inexpensive way to encourage healthy eating. The ‘smarter lunchroom’ makeover they gave to several cafeterias consists of rearranging the placement of nutritious items such as fruits and vegetables, displaying them attractively, and encouraging cafeteria staff to offer them to students. Creating brightly-colored, plentiful cornucopias of fruits and vegetables directly near the cash register and reminding students of their presence had surprisingly positive effects, the researchers found.
In the two New York high schools studied, students were 23 percent more likely to choose vegetables and 13 percent more likely to choose fruits after the makeover. As far as how much of their selections students actually ate, analysis of lunch tray leftovers showed that vegetable consumption rose 25 percent and fruit intake rose 18 percent. These positive results were achieved with less than three hours of work and less than fifty dollars in expenditure.
School districts in California have taken a different approach to the healthier eating habits of their students: incrementally banning soft drinks and junk foods. Sodas were banned from schools in California ten years ago, and junk foods followed suit five years later. Snack foods are still available in vending machines, but the state laws limit the amount of calories, sugar and fat that these snacks can contain. Recent analysis of these bans shows that high school students in California consume an average of 160 fewer calories per day than students in other states. While this may not seem like a huge amount, research shows that the staggering childhood and adolescent obesity problem in our country can be greatly aided by reducing individual calorie intake by only 100 to 200 calories per day.
While these results are optimistic, the simplest solution to providing students with more nutrition and less empty calories is clear: packing a lunch from home. Even with the reduction of junk foods in the lunch lines and addition of a few apples and oranges, cafeteria foods are often high in fats, sugars and are regularly cooked in hydrogenated oils. Last August, high school students in Pittsburgh decided to take matters into their own hands, and created a Twitter initiative called #BrownBagginIt, calling all students to bring lunch from home for a day to protest the rising cost of the “soggy and disgusting” options available. It is estimated that three quarters of students participated in this initiative, and it quickly became the second most-popular Twitter hashtag in Pittsburgh overnight.
As school districts begin to heed the statistics about overall health and obesity rates in America, as well as the complaints of their students, positive change is slowly spreading through cafeterias nationwide. While healthier options are becoming more and more available, progress is slow. As parents, it is worth the time it takes to pack your child a lunch for school to ensure they are receiving the nutrition that they need to grow. Until it is economically feasible for schools to serve healthier main courses as well as offer fruits and veggies on the side, as Pittsburgh students have demonstrated, homemade remains the way to go.
-The Alternative Daily