A preschool student at West Hoke Elementary School in North Carolina ended up eating three chicken nuggets for lunch two weeks ago -- because a state inspector declared that the 4-year-old's lunch wasn't nutritious enough.
The turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips and apple juice, according to the Carolina Journal, didn't meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. So to meet those requirements, the child was given chicken nuggets. The agent was inspecting the entire class' lunch boxes that day.
The state's Department of Health and Human Services requires that all lunches served to pre-kindergarten students -- whether from school or home -- meet USDA meal guidelines of one serving each of meat, milk and grain, and two servings of fruit or vegetables. The regulations also state that if meals or snacks brought from home do not meet nutritional requirements outlined in the "Meal Patterns for Children in Child Care," the school "must provide additional food necessary to meet those requirements."
It's unclear to state officials why, exactly, the girl's meal was deemed insufficient. The girl's mother thought that the potato chips and lack of vegetables may have been a problem, but Jani Kozlowski, fiscal and statutory policy manager for the Division of Child Development told the Carolina Journal that the meal should have met guidelines.
"With a turkey sandwich, that covers your protein, your grain, and if it had cheese on it, that's the dairy," Kozlowski said. "It sounds like the lunch itself would’ve met all of the standard."
The struggle to comply with USDA guidelines in school meals is not new. Celebrity chef and TV personality Jamie Oliver spent years trying to remove flavored milk from school cafeterias. The target: glucose. While flavored milk met USDA guidelines for dairy, those recommendations ignore the fact that a carton of flavored milk often contained more sugar than a can of soda.
In the first move of its kind in over 15 years, the government last month announced new guidelines to ensure students are given healthier options for school meals. The new standards call for more whole grains and produce as well as less sodium and fat in school meals. While the measures mark a step forward from previous years, they still compromise amid push-back from Congress to keep pizza and french fries on the menu -- counting both the tomato paste on pizza and the potatoes that make fries as vegetables.
And for many schools and parents, just getting young children to eat their servings of fruits and vegetables is a struggle. But a new study last month suggests that a quick fix could be as simple as showing kids some pictures. Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that elementary school students chose and ate more carrots and green beans when their lunch trays prompted them with pictures of those vegetables in their respective tray compartments.
"I think a lot of times they just need an example of what they're supposed to do," Deb LaBounty, nutrition services supervisor for Richfield Public Schools, told the Pioneer Press. "A lot of times, the battle is getting the kids to take the fruit or the vegetable."
Even with the researchers' low-cost idea, schools still face costly issues. For school districts to comply with new federal regulations that bring in fresh fruits and vegetables, they have seen a rise in prices, The New York Times reported. To add to that, school meals are often products of a complex web of corporate alliances among those in the food industry, in which schools pay high prices for third-party food processors to turn those products into unhealthy fried and fat-laden items.
As schools struggle to weigh and make decisions between high product and labor costs for fresher, healthier meals versus the lower overhead of processed but unhealthier foods, students are the ones who sacrifice. For a year, Chicago school teacher Sarah Wu secretly ate a school lunch every day and documented her experiences.
"That particular meal seemed barely recognizable as food," Wu told Good Morning America of her hot dog, tater tots and Jell-O lunch one day. "I was struck by the fact that the students I'm working with really rely on the school for so much, including potentially their best meal of the day."
Even in Los Angeles, where the schools have been noted for their progress toward healthier, more nutritious meals, schools still grapple with making those offerings more appealing.
"The healthier it gets, the more disgusting it is," student Kevin Albrecht told CBS News.
On Jimmy Kimmel Live last November, chef and media personality Jamie Oliver, who actively works to fight childhood obesity by promoting healthy school lunches and nutritional education, declared that "the food companies of America own you," adding that "These moron frozen food companies -- pizza industry, french-fry industry -- have basically bought, bribed, bullied Congress, who have completely let everyone down, into basically making it okay to feed [students] french fries every day."
Still, some schools -- like several in California -- have taken the matter into their own hands, and have found ways to profit from those efforts. Umpteen school districts have taken part in a decade-long initiative, supported by a philanthropic organization, that provides schools with equipments and chefs who teach cafeteria workers to cook from scratch and produce fresh meals.
A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that more than a third of high school students were eating vegetables less than once a day -- "considerably below" recommended levels of intake for a healthy lifestyle that supports weight management and could reduce risks for chronic diseases and some cancers.