THE BLOG
09/29/2015 03:50 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

No, Students Do Not Really "Hate School Lunches"

Hero Images via Getty Images

By now many of you have likely read "Why Students Hate School Lunches," by Kate Murphy in this week's New York Times Sunday Review. Here's my one word reaction to the piece: GAH!!!!

Allow me to elaborate.

The overarching point of Murphy's piece is that the new nutritional standards of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) are a dismal failure, resulting in "trash cans . . . overflowing" with healthier food "while [cafeteria] cash register receipts are diminishing as children either toss out the healthier meals or opt to brown-bag it."

Murphy then soft-pedals the current attempt to roll back those nutritional standards in Congress in a masterful spin job, telling us that HHFKA opponents only seek "to relax a few of the guidelines as Congress considers whether to reauthorize the legislation, particularly mandates for 100 percent whole grains and extremely low sodium levels, so school meals will be a bit more palatable and reflective of culinary traditions."

Let's break that down, shall we?

First, Murphy makes a big factual error right off the bat. The current whole grain standard is not "100 % whole grain," which indeed might be unpalatable to a lot of kids. It's a 50 percent whole grain standard, meaning that foods like bread and tortillas can still contain up to 50 percent white flour or other refined grains. And, by the way, if "white whole wheat" flour is used, in my experience most kids can't even tell the difference.

Second, "relaxing" standards to make food "a bit more palatable" sounds totally innocuous -- even desirable, right?  But let's be 100 percent clear about what's at stake. Depending on how this battle plays out in Congress this year, 32 million kids will either be served fruits and vegetables, or they'll be able to go back to the all-beige tray. Every. Single. Day.  They'll either be offered whole grains in accordance with Institute of Medicine recommendations, based on hard scientific evidence, or they'll be eating too many health-harming refined grains. Every. Single. Day.

It's a zero-sum game and the well-being of our most vulnerable kids hangs in the balance.

Then there's Murphy's comparison of America's rushed, highly-processed school meals to the four-course, two-hour repasts in French schools, which include items like salmon lasagne, fondue and cucumbers in vinaigrette.

As I've said many times on my blog (most recently in my widely shared post, "Why I'm Fed Up With Those Photos of School Lunches Around the World"), comparing American school meals to those in France is a truly pointless endeavor -- unless one is willing to look at the entire food culture of both countries. 

Yes, school meals in France are indeed superior to ours, but that's reflective of a government so supportive of raising good food citizens that it actually provides state-sanctioned "taste training" to all preschoolers, puts warnings on junk food ads, and funds school meals at a far higher rate than our own government.  It also reflects a larger societal food culture that places tremendous value on eating well, discourages snacking between meals, and condemns rushed, solitary eating in favor of slow meals shared with others.

Looking at our school meals in a vacuum and finding them inferior to France's is a no-brainer. But ignoring the big picture and instead attributing those disparities to -- of all things -- our recently improved school meal nutritional standards, is so misguided it makes my head spin.  If Murphy thinks "relaxing" school nutrition standards is going to make our school meals look one bit more like the meals in France, I think it's fair to conclude she never set foot in a school cafeteria before the HHFKA standards were in effect.

Finally, Murphy's piece is rife with sweeping inaccuracies. She tells us trash cans are "overflowing" with healthful food, but did she read three recent studies -- from the Harvard School of Public Health, the University of Connecticut and the Baylor College of Medicine, which found no increased plate waste due to the implementation of the new meal standards?  She tells us kids are running from the school meal program, but did she look at data showing meal participation has actually increased among kids on free and reduced price lunch, i.e., the very kids for whom the National School Lunch Program exists?  Oh, and by the way, those kids apparently aren't just grudgingly eating school meals because they have to. A peer-reviewed study in Childhood Obesity tells us that among this critical segment of kids, almost 70 percent actually like the new, healthier food. But I'm guessing Murphy never read that study, either.

The sad thing is this:  When a paper as venerable as the New York Times publishes a seemingly fact-based piece with the headline, "Why Students Hate School Lunches," it can have profound real-world consequences.  Even as we speak, I have no doubt that a link to Murphy's piece is being sent to Congressional offices by those who hope to undermine school nutrition standards during the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization.

Now those of us who support healthier meal standards are going to have to work double-time to try to undo the damage.  But unfortunately, as many have said before, "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boots on."