The future of school lunches

Keeping an eye on kids and parents.
Feb. 11 2003 1:43 PM

"I Say the Hell With It!"

School lunches are making kids fat—but collard greens aren't the solution.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Congress is preparing to review the $10 billion annual federal school nutrition program this spring, responding to a widespread sense of crisis. The proportion of severely overweight children and adolescents has tripled over the last 30 years, to 15 percent. Health problems have multiplied; Type 2 diabetes, which used to be called "adult onset diabetes," has now encroached on childhood.

But as America's battle with an epidemic of childhood obesity enters the schools, it's worth being on guard against severely inflated expectations. As if the goal of getting kids to consume moderately healthier lunches weren't daunting enough, some reformers seem to envision wholesale re-education of students' palates. Count on Californians to be out in front of the gastronomic crusade. "Kids don't like Shakespeare, but it's good for them. It's the same with food," insisted a champion of Berkeley High School's recent quest to convert students to "nutritious, fresh, tasty, locally grown food that reflects Berkeley's cultural diversity."

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Given the dismal quality of school food—from canned government-surplus staples in the lunchroom to Coke-and-junk-stocked vending machines in the halls, with no trace of vitamin-rich roughage in sight—a pendulum swing to hyper-wholesomeness is hardly surprising. Dietary issues have always tended to inspire zealotry in this country, where "the perfect diet," "the total health makeover," the "revolutionary weight control program" exert great allure. But when it comes to adults telling children what to eat, the contest of wills is rarely just about controlling appetite—it's also about kids resisting adult control. In other words, the real problem isn't providing children with healthier lunch options; it's figuring out how to make them actually eat what's served up.

Take what happened at Berkeley High. The public school's healthy alternative to "the airline food model" included organic pork tacos with fresh tortillas—a specialty of the Berkeley queen of cuisine, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. There were also such delicacies as pesticide-free salads and stir-fried tofu. But even (or especially?) kids reared with a fresh-is-best ethos turned up their noses at the offerings, the New York Times reported. They bought sweets and sodas instead or hurried to nearby fast-food outlets. The program closed down this fall, with the director of nutrition services for the district still vowing that "we are committed to re-establishing healthy food."

Advocates of super-nutritious lunches may point to the success of a program in Opelika, Ala.—an initiative that was also touted lately in the Times. Opelika's menu is down-home by comparison to Berkeley's Chez-Panisse-style approach, yet just as high-minded. Courtesy of local farmers, students in the rural district of Opelika are served fresh lima beans, butter cream peas, black-eyed peas, collard and turnip greens. And they actually eat the stuff—but that's only because they aren't allowed off school property and vending machines aren't allowed on it. Opelika is unusual in other ways, too: Its school kitchens, unlike most American schools, are equipped to cook food, not just heat it up, and parents and school officials have been happy to fork over extra funds. In short, this wholesome food model (like Berkeley's) is not readily replicable.

Even if it were, the collard-and-turnip-greens ideal shouldn't set the standard for lunch reform. Public schools have their plates full without taking on the (hopeless) task of turning junk-food enthusiasts into eager veggie-eaters. ("I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it": The complaint dates back three-quarters of a century.) A more feasible—and more useful—aim would be to help kids become wiser fast-food consumers. After all, their lunch hours are rushed. (As one poor Berkeley student remarked, "no one can appreciate cuisine" when there's barely time to sit down.) And they're going to be eating on the run for years to come.

There is a model out there: Subway, the sub sandwich enterprise founded in 1965 and first franchised in 1974, which last year surpassed McDonald's with more than 13,000 outlets across the United States. Subway doesn't require a perfect or revolutionary dietary regimen (much less an elaborate kitchen: Its franchises are cheap and often cramped, with a set-up most schools could probably match). It markets ordinary cold cuts (which even kids like) as a shortcut to wholesomeness (which is what everybody really wants, not least parents and schools faced with picky eaters). And its company history is itself evidence that eating better need not entail a total health makeover—just some tactical maneuvers.           

Remember the Subway of the early 1970s? It was known for the BMT—the "biggest, meatiest, tastiest" sub, stuffed with salami, pepperoni, ham, and bologna, hardly an example of organic wholesomeness. But the Subway of the late 1990s carved out a hugely expanded niche with an aroma of baking bread and a pitch for smaller, fresher sandwiches featuring "seven under 6 grams of fat." It has stuck to the same basic ingredients through thick and thin, and it packages healthier options as small choices rather big sacrifices: pile on the peppers and pickles, hold the mayo, vary the bread. Unlike McDonald's and Taco Bell—which abandoned the McLean Deluxe burger and the Border Lights menu in the early '90s—Subway successfully taught us that we could like healthy fast food.

Subway's menu does not promise organic salvation—the closest it has ever come to fruit is the Fruizle smoothie; for dessert, there are cookies rather than, say, apples—but for the most part the sub menu adds up to many fewer calories and a fraction of the fat of the burger-and-fries alternative. And by not requiring a lifestyle transformation, the scaled-down hero can encourage even the least health-food minded to take steps in the right direction, with unexpected results—as evidenced by twentysomething Jared Fogel, a former 425-pound fatso, who, in 2000, became the franchise's poster boy. After a year of eating only Subway's lowest-fat sandwiches instead of his usual mega-Mac diet, Fogel had lost 245 pounds—and it had felt "a little like feasting," he said, "rather than totally depriving myself."

Nutrition activists, understandably enough, may be alarmed by the spread of corporate logos in public schools (according to Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, the American School Food Service Association estimates that nearly a third of public high schools serve "branded fast food," from Taco Bell to Pizza Hut). But schools don't have to buy the Subway trademark to learn from the Subway strategy. With 28 franchises actually on school grounds so far, and a thousand delivery contracts, Subway has proved a big hit with administrators desperate, as Schlosser reports, to have "kids ... think school lunch is a cool thing, the cafeteria a cool place, that we're 'with it,' that we're not institutional." In the Northwest Independent School District near Fort Worth, Texas, the new Subway franchise whips ups batches of three different subs before each of three lunch periods—there's no time for custom-made fare. And the students flock to it. Without much trouble, the lunch ladies who now dish up soggy greens and mystery meat could be handing out fresh baked bread, recognizable cold cuts, and veggie toppings that plenty of teens—even the trendsetters—would happily eat. After all, Saturday Night Live and Letterman have already made Jared "the Subway guy" a nebishy celebrity for an age of irony—a pragmatist rather than a purist in the realm of appetite, the kind of proselytizer a kid can stomach.