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.

Adrienne Tsme April 29, 2011 at 03:51 PM
It's been many years since I "experienced" a D65 school meal — 6 Evanston elementary schools also serve breakfast. The lunch menu is at www.district65.net/departments/foodservices/Lunch/I00C828DD.0/Elementary%20&%20Rhodes%20Lunch%20Menu%2010-11.pdf . It's heavy on fried, high sodium and sugary foods and low on vegetable protein and fiber. My own school lunches were similarly prepared and so bad, they taught me not to like those foods, except for Sexton canned green beans— I loved them. However, we should see if D65's breakfast and lunch menus can be improved. A first step would be to have an opportunity for the Evanston public to sample them, so we know what we're talking about.
Marya F April 29, 2011 at 08:09 PM
Currently a few of my kids are in private school(s) where you'd think lunches would be healthier than D65? Haaaa. Hotdogs, hamburgers, pasta with butter (or sauce, excuse me, don't want to neglect the sauce), rolls, chips, cookies, pizza, breaded chicken strips. It's horrifying. But my kids love every meal. They also love bad TV, wearing their pajamas all day, not brushing their teeth, and touching worms.
chicago lampoon April 29, 2011 at 08:38 PM
This is a great idea. We should give the kids at government schools only fresh fruits and vegetables. Then, when they throw it out, we can collect it from the garbage bins and distribute it to the homeless. Then when they toss it away, we can rest assured that they are only littering our parks with organic, decomposable waste (so long as we don't give it to them in bags.) And besides, squirrels might like it. And we've got to take a page from the ladies at the Little Village Academy in Pilsen and absolutely, positively not allow them to bring in lunches made by their own parents who are not enlightened forward-thinkers from the Green Organic Foods movement like us.
Marya F April 30, 2011 at 04:36 AM
You made me laugh, Chicago Lampoon. Then I fed my kids Twinkies for dinner. Tomorrow we're having Ding Dongs.
chicago lampoon April 30, 2011 at 07:30 PM
My mom let me have Little Debbies every morning as a kid while I was rolling my papers for my paper route and look how I turned out! Most people don't know this, but Adolf Hitler was a health food fanatic -- a vegetarian, a teetotaller and a rabid anti-smoker. William Shirer chronicled it: http://chicagolampoon.blogspot.com/2010/09/adolf-hitlers-health-food-diet-and-you.html
Marci May 01, 2011 at 03:11 PM
As a parent of a child with a severe allergies including dairy, I have become more aware that the only "healthy" food that gets successfully pushed in this nation is milk. PBS even works it into their programming. If the vegetable growers of America had the same lobbying power as the American Dairy Council, a healthy vegetable would be pushed with every meal just like cow's milk is the only beverage pushed with each meal. (Water, juice, soy milk?) I think that school lunches are packed with profit and politics. It is just a reality. I work in a school, and I know that the distributors of school lunches don't offer many healthy options. I only have the choice to pack my daughter's lunch because there are few to no dairy free meals that would are provided at the schools. I've read the menus, and there was not one meal that she could eat. It is kind of a mixed blessing. Her food allergies make me more aware about every ingredient I feed her. I think Evanston should reach out to Jamie Oliver and have him overhaul our school lunches. Only because that would be awesome. I think Evanston as a community cares about what we feed our children, but when a big system provides that many meals and needs to stay within a budget, the quality will absolutely be compromised. The standards of the USDA need to be overhauled before we can improve what the government is willing to feed our children. Until then, I will pack lunches. With cookies. I am not against treats. I am not a monster!
Marya F May 01, 2011 at 03:49 PM
I confess to being one of the moms who was so into NOT doing it like my own mother (we were denied anything with sugar; no soda; no junk food; no white bread) that I sort of went the other way and let my kids eat Cheetoes and school lunches, etc. Not in huge amounts, but I was much more liberal due to my own upbringing. Of course over the years I've concluded that moderation is key, and if we deny our children cake at birthday parties, they will probably grow up (like I did) and want cake more than ever. Having said that, when I watched the documentary "Food, Inc" I realized that we do owe it to our kids to offer them and sometimes insist on, healthy food. The problem is, while on my quest for grass-fed beef and nitrate-free lunch meat or crackers without high fructose corn syrup (not to mention anything without h.c.s), the cost. We all know it's not only easier but a lot cheaper to stick with soda and fast food burgers. In the movie, you see a family of four order 4 burgers, 2 chicken sandwiches and 4 drinks. Then they go to the store and check out fresh produce. With the same amount of money they can afford a bushel of broccoli and 4 pears. and maybe one other thing. So on the one hand, I have the time and means to create healthy habits, but many do not. This is a part of the tragedy, in addition to our nation creating a huge population of overweight people with medical needs and shortened life spans.
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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