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Evanston Debates Healthier School Lunches

Students and residents gather at Northwestern's Campus to discuss school lunch quality and how to improve it.

The issue of healthier school lunches is gaining momentum in Evanston.

On Thursday evening, one of two free screenings of the documentary “Lunch Line” was shown to an audience of more than 50 people including Northwestern University students and faculty, District 65 parents and other members of the community. Afterwards, those in attendance discussed issues with the quality of school lunches and possible solutions.

“There are so many ways of coming at this question and this problem, so it’s really exciting to hear different approaches to it,” said Diane Schanzenbach, a Professor at Northwestern University who has done research on school lunches and obesity. 

The documentary, which was co-directed by Northwestern graduate Michael Graziano, followed the history and current problems associated with the National School Lunch Program, and the quest of six Chicago Public School students to change the school lunch system for the better. Highlighted was the idea that the NSLP, a social service that brings meals to over 30 million children each day, lacks healthy options for school lunches and is a contributing factor to childhood obesity and malnutrition.

“They don’t see an orange as an orange, they see it as a set of proteins, a set of carbohydrates,” said Northwestern student Victor Fimbres. His statement echoed a point made during the documentary that, according to the USDA standards that all school districts must follow nationwide, a package of Gummi Bears artificially enriched with Vitamin C would be seen as a perfectly viable substitute for a naturally grown orange.

“If it’s cheaper to provide French fries than it is to provide fresh fruit, if nobody is making you provide fresh fruit, than you’re going to do the thing with the higher [profit] margin,” said Schanzenbach.

As solutions to the gap between what is seen as healthy for children and what the USDA deems acceptable were discussed, it was apparent that there is no one silver bullet for the problem. Schanzenbach advocated tighter government regulations and greater incentives for schools to prepare healthy foods, while greater community involvement and more health-focused curriculum were also discussed.

“This is all taking place in an educational setting, and we’re really teaching children not to believe anything, because what they read in the books is contradicted in real life, in their lunch,” said Debbie Hillman of the Evanston Food Policy Council.

Hillman, also an active member of the Evanston PTA Healthy Community Task Force, was confident that a healthier foods movement in Evanston is picking up steam.

“People are creating more of a critical mass. More people are talking to each other and talking about these issues,” she said.

For those interested in learning more or joining in the debate, a second screening of “Lunch Line” will be shown this Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Evanston Public Library. A panel discussion will be led by Hillman, Rochelle Davis of the Healthy Foods Council and District 65 Superintendent Dr. Hardy Murphy after the screening.

Frank May 08, 2011 at 01:32 PM
They were serving steamed vegetables at ETHS in the lunchrooms earlier this year and almost none of the kids were choosing this option (they get three sides and a milk with their school lunch). They also offer raw veggies every day and they usually have quite a bit of this left at the end of the day as well. Most of the kids will not take the milk that is free with their lunch. By contrast, the frozen "slushy" machines (which should be retired) are the most popular choice by far. It's sad seeing the poor choices that are made in the cafeterias by our students every day.
Susy May 08, 2011 at 05:52 PM
How hard is it to pack up a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, and a cookie and put it in the kid's backpack in the morning? This is an extremely cheap, easy lunch (prepped in under 2 minutes) and far healthier and tastier than the hot lunches the kids are offered at school. If your kid has peanut allergies, make it a slice of cheese or hummus in the sandwich. Done. The schools should offer this simple lunch as well, and forget the hot lunches, which are not worth the price of admission. If you're not willing or able to pack your child's lunch and would rather put your energies elsewhere than fighting the behemoth that is the national school lunch program, then you can also fall back on a bit of wisdom a mother I once knew told me. "I give them a good breakfast, an after school snack, and a good dinner, so I don't worry too much about what they eat at school. They don't have time to eat much there anyway." (We can all relate to this last, seriously, how much can they eat in 10 minutes while busy socializing?) I should add that this family lived in a small town in a largely rural state, the parents were employed at a nearby college, and they kept goats and ducks for milk and eggs, worked a vegetable garden, and bought a beef each year from a relative's dairy farm. Kudos to the school vegetable gardens which do an amazing job of educating kids on biology and healthy eating. Can we add poultry?
Marya F May 08, 2011 at 09:28 PM
Right on, Susy. PB&J/Cheese/Hummus or whatever, w/an apple. Forget a cookie. Try pretzels or a granola bar. And milk whenever possible. If the kid won't drink milk, then hello water! Hot lunches should ONLY offer these items + veggies and other fruits (oranges, bananas, pears). If this does not sound like enough for a kid, you're wrong. It's plenty. If and I say IF they suddenly grow 6 inches, are doing sports every day and need more - then they get 2 sandwiches, 2 apples and 2 milks. If we simplified it - I promise you that a) the kids whose parents refuse to make them lunches or believe that the school lunch program is more affordable - would eat the food and b) the kids who buy hot lunches not because they have to/need to but want to - will either stop buying it and beg Mom for something else or they'll just eat the stuff. Herein lies the problem. Money. School lunch programs need to exist (supposedly) to help fund schools. And if kids stop buying, schools lose money. Then what? It's a nasty circle. And here's a sad statistic: you can get 2 two-liter bottles of soda pop (such as Coke) during a sale day for $5 but if you wanted to buy 3 peppers (let's say green, red, yellow) you'd actually need $8?
Martha King May 09, 2011 at 12:27 AM
I'd like to remind everyone that there are many kids in our community who receive free lunch and what they get at school may be the only hot meal they have all day. It needs to be something they will eat.
Marya F May 09, 2011 at 02:22 AM
Totally agree, Martha. That's why if it's a sandwich, cheese, peanut butter, jam, hummus, an apple and pretzels + milk (chocolate, fine) then there's a huge chance all kids will eat it. If we throw in carrots and kiwis then no, they probably won't. I love the concept of encouraging kids to eat healthy snacks & meals but I also have a kid who refuses to eat basically anything aside from "bad stuff". I've found the pb sandwich, choc milk and pretzels work well for lunch. Sometimes a string cheese stick. I just don't think a child, any child, should eat crap, esp if it's free and through an institution such as a school. There is absolutely no reason to serve a hot dog to anyone. Same for hamburger, pizza. I could go on. Some people might say "But they eat it" but that's like saying "Let's all eat computer paper and stuffed animals," ie. it's worthless. I called my pediatrician because my kid eats not one single veggie and an apple maybe once a month. No fish, no chicken. Nothing. Doctors words: "peanut butter, whole milk, bread (preferably whole wheat), yogurt, cheese, and a multi vitamin will be fine, as long as he's on the growth charts." And that's about all the kid eats, plus or minus pasta and chicken noodle soup. Literally, nothing else.

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