Tayo Olson takes a carrot from the salad bar at Eugene Village School in Eugene,… (Ivar Vong / Associated Press )
Settle down, everyone, and pay attention. This is National School Lunch Week, a time when we pay tribute to the school lunch.
We could take this opportunity to disparage the school lunch, but so many other people have done that already, like chef Jamie Oliver and Sarah Wu, whose book "Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project -- How One Anonymous Teacher Survived a Year of School Lunches" arrived last week. You may remember Wu as Mrs. Q., who blogged about her dedication to eating an entire year of sometimes dubious lunches. Some studies have shown that school lunches may play a role in the childhood obesity problem.
"Schools are constantly working to improve the quality of the food they're serving," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Assn., a Maryland-based national nonprofit that works with government agencies and other groups to improve school nutrition programs. Case in point: More schools, she said, are trying to source their food locally, especially from local growers. The timing is right, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture is updating the nutrition standards for meals that are part of the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs.
Despite the progress that's been made in adding fruits, vegetables and whole grains to lunches, even Pratt-Heavner said there's room for improvement, as schools are also looking for more ways to reduce sodium and added sugar. But, she added, if lunch programs are going to blaze some trails, students have to come along for the ride.
"We need to work with kids to encourage them to take those fruits and vegetables and give them a try," she said, just as they should do at home or at restaurants. So, boys and girls, if you see a kiwi or some butternut squash, don't trash it before trying it first.
The other tricky element to school lunches is time. With many schools having to cut the lunch break to half an hour or even 20 minutes, sometimes kids can't even make it through the cafeteria line in time. That, said Pratt-Heavner, is being dealt with in a number of ways, from ready-to-go bagged fruits and vegetables to streamlining food service to providing checklists for made-to-order salads.
"For some kids, lunch is their best meal of the day," Pratt-Heavner said. Even for kids who aren't receiving free or reduced-price meals, school lunches are a tremendous convenience for some families. "To know your kids will have access to a well-balanced meal at school is a huge relief."
What do you think of the school lunches your kids are served? Are you involved in helping the school serve more healthful food? Let us know.