To be sure, the better-school-lunch movement has gained a toehold in many schools, which have begun to offer kids salads and whole grains and fresh fruits. And they've gotten a big push from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which over the next several years will require all foods sold in schools — including those in à la carte lines, vending machines and on the standard lunch tray — to adhere to new dietary standards.
The heart of the act is $4.5 billion in new funding, the first hike in federal reimbursement for school lunches in more than 30 years. Those funds are to be used to upgrade school meals, help link school districts with local farms to supply fresh produce, expand access to drinking water in schools and improve the quality of "surplus foods" that the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes available to schools (think giant slabs of orange processed cheese). But such new spending is likely to take a significant hit in the latest round of deficit-reduction efforts, and school districts — most of which already supply school lunch at a loss — will find it hard to provide healthier fare with little or no new money.
What you can do: There are two solutions to school lunch: the every-student-for-himself strategy and the communitarian route. If your child is open to carrying a packed lunch to school, it's not hard to find great, healthful components, including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and bars, cheese or yogurt. The American Dietetic Assn. suggests you involve your kids in choosing foods they'll eat and not trade or throw away — and that you "change it up" frequently. "Let's Move!" encourages parents to agitate for school gardens and nutrition education as a way to get kids pumped about eating well — and possibly to help supply the cafeteria with fresh produce. Personally, I am a great fan of Jamie Oliver's efforts. (Good news if your kids eat in L.A. Unified cafeterias: Pizza and chicken nuggets are off the menu come September.)
If we learned anything by reading William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" in middle school, it is that children can be very cruel to each other, whether surrounded by institutional walls or not. OK, school isn't exactly a deserted island where one's very survival is at stake, but it has its stresses, including crowded halls, limited free time and the inevitable emergence of tribalism and hierarchy.
With those stresses come bullying and violence. In a 2009 nationally representative sample of youth in grades 9-12, the CDC found that 11.1% of high school kids reported being in a physical fight on school property in the 12 months preceding the survey. And 19.9% reported being bullied on school property in the 12 months preceding the survey. Boys were more likely than girls to have engaged in physical fighting (15.1% versus 6.7%). Girls were more likely to report being bullied than were boys (21.2% versus 18.7%).
The same survey found that 5.6% of those surveyed said they had personally carried a weapon (a gun, knife or club) into school in the preceding 30 days. And 7.7% reported they had been threatened or injured with a weapon at school in the past year. From 1992 to 2006, 116 students were killed in 109 separate incidents in schools.
Far more likely than physical injury at school, however, is the prospect of being taunted, teased and generally humiliated — which, despite the old saw, may have a more corrosive and enduring effect on a child's well-being than sticks and stones. For years after they were bullied, adults who were victims in their teen years have higher rates of depression and low self-esteem and are more likely to ponder suicide.
The much-discussed threat of cyberbullying affects as many as 3 in 4 teenagers in a given year, according to a 2008 UCLA study. And while cyberbullying often takes place out of school, school is where bullies meet, target and often torment their online victims first, says study author Jaana Juvonen, a UCLA professor of developmental psychology. And the forms that bullying take online and in school, she noted, "are more alike than different."