July 29, 2008
Photo by Kate Lord/Wilmington Star-News
Today’s side items are piled on as well: a chocolate brownie, some chocolate milk and a packaged fruit cup. When compared to their nearby classmates’ brown bag specials of homemade sandwiches on wheat bread, apples, vegetables and bottled water, it doesn’t appear to be the most nutritious of lunch options. But it is, to the growing concern of parents and even some school administrators, still the most popular – and certainly easiest – option.
Many students at the school said they ate school lunch two to five times a week, choosing from a monthly menu the days they would buy lunch or bring it. A quick, unscientific survey of students revealed the obvious: nachos, pizza, mac ‘n cheese and corn puppies ranked high in what students enjoyed, while the perhaps more nutritious options such as the seafood combo and lasagne were their least favorites.
Armed with the news of childhood obesity on the rise – in North Carolina alone, 45 percent of children are overweight or obese – parents have been pushing for more healthy school lunches. And after decades of schools feeding students classic favorites that were quick and cheap, but costly on the waistline, parents are now seeing small battles being won in the nation’s largest lunchroom food fight.
Bans on school soda machines are far-reaching nationwide, as are the elimination of deep-fat fryers from cafeterias. This year, the New Hanover school district is integrating more fiber into the school lunches by serving brown rice and whole wheat pizzas, said Imer Smith, director of the New Hanover County Schools’ Child Nutrition Department. Those corn puppies being dished up? Whole grain.
Despite a push by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which monitors lunch programs, to integrate more whole grain and less sugar in the menu, some parents still think that food offered in the school cafeteria is unhealthy. And they’re taking matters into their own hands.
Wilmington mother Dana Tart said of her second- and fifth-grade sons, “They’ve never eaten school lunch. My husband and I totally believe in organic foods. In school lunches, we don’t know where it’s coming from.”
Tart, whose children are allergic to preservatives and dyes, wakes up 45 minutes early to pack her children’s lunchboxes filled with mostly homemade and all organic food.
As the school year approaches, principals and parents try to figure out how to get kids to make healthy choices. In a study conducted last school year by UNCW’s Department of Health and Applied Human Sciences, administrators from New Hanover County Schools said, “Children nowadays traditionally do not come with good eating habits. We serve salad every day.”
But, the study continues, most students do not choose to eat it.
What students do choose to eat at school may not be the result solely of unhealthy eating habits at home.
“I think peer pressure plays a big factor into what they’re going to eat,” said Smith at the Child Nutrition Department. “You have to continually remind or educate them.”
It’s clear for Austin Tart, 10, who eats his organic lunch packed by his mom at school everyday. When classmates turn their noses up at his black bean burrito and kale, he simply says, “You eat what you want to eat, I’ll eat what I want to eat, and let’s talk about something else.”