Wednesday, August 22, 2012

School Lunch Soapbox

Some of you may know that I was a teacher in a former life.  For five years I taught 9th grade physical science in the second largest school district in our state.  I started as a wet-behind-the-ears 22 year old college graduate.  I knew a lot about science and education, I didn't know much about teaching.

As a teacher of freshmen, most of my students were 14 and 15 years old.  But we had a few 16 year olds mixed in, depending on birthdays, retention, etc.  One young man will forever be burned in my mind.  He was a tall young man who every day would fold himself into one of my desks and place his head upon his desk and immediately fall asleep.  He never caused a problem, but he also never did any work.  Even on lab days (which were at least twice a week), he would sleep on the lab stool with his head on the table.

I went to my team leader, a salt-of-the-earth man who taught next door to me, and asked him about this student we both had in class.  Yes, he slept in George's class as well.  The only thing he didn't sleep through was lunch.  I asked, "Why is he here?  If he doesn't want to be in school, why doesn't he just drop out?  He's sixteen, he could do it."  George put his arm around this polyanna-teacher's shoulders and said, "He's here because it's probably his only safe place.  He probably doesn't sleep at night because of some sort of family trouble, he may be homeless.  And he's here for lunch because I'm sure it's the only hot meal he gets all day."

My eyes were opened in a way that day that they could never have been opened in a college classroom.
I came from a home where food was never an issue.  My safety was never an issue.  I may have had to work hard on the farm, but I always had a hot meal and a warm bed at night and breakfast in the morning.

This past month, the USDA released new dietary guidelines for school lunch.  (You can find them HERE)  As a biologist and someone who taught anatomy and physiology as a part time job, I'm appalled.  Apparently dietitians no longer take anatomy courses because the first thing you would learn about the nervous system and the brain in MY three credit college class is that the brain is fueled by protein and fat.  And the USDA has all but eliminated protein and fat from the school lunch menu.

Sally Fallon Morrell of the Weston A. Price Foundation shared the following in a speech in 2010: (source -

"Now, if we look at the fats in the brain, the two major fats are saturated fat and a fat called arachidonic acid.  But we're not supposed to eat saturated fats, right?  Yet saturated fats like butter, meat fats, lard, and coconut oil are the kinds of fats your brain wants and needs.  And if you don't eat those fats, your body says, "Well, give me that next best thing:  refined carbohydrates."  Your body can make saturated fats out of refined carbohydrates.  And that's how people get cravings for refined carbohydrates - especially pregnant women and growing children.  Unfortunately, eating refined carbohydrates robs the body of nutrients, while natural saturated animal fats provide some very important nutrients.

The other really interesting fat in the brain is arachidonic acid.  Arachidonic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid that is only in animal fats, such as in butter, egg yolks, organ meats, and meat fats.  Like saturated fats, arachidonic acid has been the victim of demonization."

And what happens when the brain is deprived of its preferred fuel?  Ms. Morrell tell us in the same speech:
"Today the horrible condition called autism - along with other manifestation of brain starvation such as learning disorders, mental problems, inability to concentrate, behavior problems, violence, addiction and mental retardation threaten the fabric of our culture.

I'm not going to mince words here.  These problems are the direct result of the dietary guidelines coming out of the Department of Agriculture since the early 1980's,...

Having recently given birth to three children in three years, I know a little something about the pregnancy and the infant/toddler diet recommendations.  Do you know why pregnant women are to eat fats?  Do you know why infants and toddlers are to drink high saturated fat breastmilk, formula and whole milk?  The fat is necessary for brain development and function!  But, I guess when you reach school age, you know longer need to develop your brain or require it to function.

I have a friend who used to work in the ED classroom.  If you don't know, ED stands for emotionally disturbed.  These are the kids who suffer from many of the brain starvation diagnoses that Ms. Morrell listed above.  In this classroom, the ED staff decided to modify the diets of their students to eliminate refined carbohydrates, and to add more fat and protein.  It took about two days for the students to detoxify and after those two days, their behavior problems were dramatically reduced.

After a while, the ED staff stopped the special lunches.  Why?  Did they quit working?  No, but the parents wouldn't feed them those same foods on the weekend so it took until Wednesday every week to detox the students from their diets at home.

I tell you that to illustrate the foundation of my philosophy of education:  
The school (teachers, coaches, bus drivers, school lunch programs) can do NO MORE and NO LESS than what is reinforced at home.  

The USDA changed the school lunch guidelines to reduce calories...across the board...for every student.  Athletes, video-game junkies, dancers, science nerds, boys, girls:  they all get the same calories.  For a student in K-5, they are allowed 550-650 calories for lunch; a high school student gets 750-850 calories.  My toddlers eat more calories than that!  But we're expecting children to not only function, but to use their brains in higher learning processes.

When it comes to protein, it gets worse.  A K-5 student is only allowed 8-10oz of meat (or meat alternatives), high schoolers get 10-12oz per WEEK!  A large egg without a shell weighs 1.7oz, my kids routinely eat at least three eggs for breakfast.  Oh wait, did you think that kids who eat breakfast at school would be getting eggs?  Sorry, no student can have protein for breakfast, only lunches.  Breakfasts are strictly grains, fruit and milk.  No protein allowed.  Oh, and the milk is skim milk, which is basically sugar water.  No healthy fats there.

To boil it down (school kitchen humor intended), this is my question:  Per the Feeding America website,
According to the USDA, over 16 million children lived in food insecure (low food security and very low food security) households in 2010.      
We have 16 million children in this country who don't know where their next meal is coming from, but we're going to limit their food intake at school?  The only hot meal some of them will get in a day?  

I have a friend who is an amazing mother.  She and her husband have fostered many children in addition to raising their own five children.  Last spring she told me of a moment that broke her heart.  They were planting their very large family garden, everyone was helping.  Their foster son, who had been with them for about 6 months asked what vegetables they could plant in pots.  My friend said, "Well, almost anything could be planted in a pot, but we've got plenty of room here to plant anything you want."  Her foster son kept asking and wondering, particularly about carrots.  Finally, she asked him why.  He replied, "If I plant the vegetables in pots, then when I get sent back to my mom I can take some food with me."  After some questioning of the social worker, my friend discovered that this boy's mom would use her money to buy video games rather than food.

USDA officials, are you willing to look in the face of this boy and tell him he can't have seconds or leftovers?  Because by painting the child obesity situation with your very wide brush, you are adversely affecting so many others.  You cannot change the eating habits of children by limiting their caloric intake in 5 or 10 meals a week.  That's only 25-50% of the meals those kids consume per week.  

And the calories you are providing them are not calories that provide brain nutrition.  Everyone needs a balanced diet...but this diet is not balanced.  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a colorful plate and eating fruits and vegetables.  But adding more fruits and vegetables to the exclusion of fats and proteins is not the solution.  You are depriving children of the very fuel their little (and not so little) brains and bodies need to power themselves.  

The USDA wants to boil it down to a matter of calories.  It's a matter of children.  Those children who can afford to buy another meal will, or they will go to the gas station after school to buy junk food.  But those children who can't afford another meal are the ones who won't be getting food at home on a regular basis. And you've just sent them to bed on 850 calories...


  1. Great article! I couldn't agree more, and hope that more people get on the bandwagon and we can see some changes.

  2. Great information, I really appreciate you sharing these facts! Your stories break my heart but they are reality, and they need to be told! Thank you!

  3. Well said! I am struggling with how to respond to my own schools decisions to enforce these policies. I have the means to replace school lunch for my children, but worry about those who don't.

  4. I completely agree! How can we expect children to pay attention and behave when we are starving their brains?

  5. great blog! someone was telling me when my son was in head start (12 years ago) that i should try a high fat diet with him. They didn't explain too much but they said they read that it helps children with ADHD and childhood seizures. I did for awhile but kinda got on the fruit/vegetable track with minumum red meats. I am now going to do this again. You should get a weekly column in local newspapers!

    1. Hey, Just me, you don't have to go HIGH fat for your son, but do include whole milk or at least 2% milk instead of skim. Make sure eggs and lean red meat is well represented in his diet. You will find that there are so many nutrients that they all provide that can be found nowhere else. The right fats is important. Bless you for doing what you can to help your son. That's what we mamas do!! :)

  6. Annie I would like permission to print this and give it to some co-workers. Thanks.

  7. Thanks for sharing Annie! I've been thinking about this as I will be sending Jackson to Kindergarten tomorrow. I was devastated as a kid when we had to start eating school lunches because we qualified for the free lunch program. I am SO grateful that we can afford to pack his lunch everyday loaded with a good healthy balance to keep him happy and healthy at school.

  8. Excellent information and I will be sharing it with co-workers, family and friends. Keep up the good work!

  9. That would explain why I craved fried chicken during my pregnancy :) My doctor couldn't explain it to me, but advised me to eat it if that's what my body was asking for... I come from a country where everything is loaded with protein and animal fat in our diets, the main course is always rice with beans cooked in bacon grease, a side of meat, and some kind of vegetable, and some fried side of some sort (plantains mostly). I had never even seen different kinds of milk- we only have full fat milk, that I know. They should be concerning themselves on how much activity the children are having, and not how many calories they eat- if you ask me. My five year old starts K in a few days, she's tall and thin, but sometimes can eat more than me, between snacks and meals. What are they going to do with kids like mine? I can see trouble brewing...

  10. Okay, Annie, this is amazing. I hadn't read you before the link up with Katie Pinke. Now I'm going to link to you in my post about this topic later this week. Your experience and perspective shed light on some of the exact questions I want answered: What about kids who only eat at school? What about balanced nutrition complete with protein and yes, fats? Thanks for helping answer those questions.

    1. Anytime, I'm happy to help! I'll be posting early next week about possible solutions.

  11. Absolutely awesome post. Thank you for your perspective. I'll be linking you on my blog post as well. Please send this to the Secretary of Ag and the Undersecretary for Food & Nutrition Services. They both need to hear your point of view. We must take this conversation to the people who can change this program. The address is listed on my blog:

  12. Very well put! These are the exact concerns that I have been expressing to people I know. I am not someone who normally jumps up on a soapbox but I have ventured up there on this issue. As a mother of a son with Autism and as a veterinarian and farmwife, I worry about the lack of protein and limits on amount of food. I am all for more fruits and vegetables but it needs to be balanced with protein and fats. These kids need fuel to concentrate and grow!

  13. Wonderful piece. Thanks for putting the science in perspective!

  14. Excellent post. I applaud you for standing up for children and thank you for sharing such a wealth of information

  15. I have a daughter who is a gymnast and a son who was born 8 weeks premature and has yet to even make it onto the growth chart. I am in the process of making special arragements with the schools for my children to have the extra food they ne
    ed. While I realize that many children do not have parents that pay attention to their caloric and nutritional needs, I feel like my children are not going to receive the adequate nutrition that they require for their individual situations. I also know I can't do anything about this. I can't control what the government does, or what other parents do as far as nutritional needs for their children. Then, there are the children like the one in this blog, whose only meal may be the one they receive at school. I'm tired of fighting, so I'm just going to make sure my children are fed. Lexie will be taking food to keep in her locker to meet her extra caloric needs for the many hours of intense workout she performs in gymnastics and I am in the process of making arrangements for Sam to go to the school nurse to receive a snack in the afternoon, as he is so small, his little body can't go from 11 o├žlock in the morning till 4 pm without something to eat. He would sit in class all afternoon hungry and not learn a thing. I don't have an answer for this mess, other than, I will do what I need to make sure my children are fed. If the school doesn't like it, they'll be sorry!!

  16. Awesome! You are a wonderful writer and I look forward to reading about some of your ideas for different solutions. I dont have any children in school yet but I know many children in school and would hope that they are getting what they need at lunch time.

  17. FABULOUS POST! There is so much wrong with kids eating in this country, across the board not just hungry kids, that I agree that the FDA changes are not going to work! I'll be sharing your post on my blog tomorrow!!!

  18. As the mother of an autistic child I take great offense to you saying it is a result of brain starvation. I ate healthy meals while pregnant. Also autism occurs more in boys then girls. So only boys moms are starting their brains?

    1. Anonymous - Annie, the author of the blog, was quoting Sally Fallon Morrell of the Weston A. Price Foundation who gave the information in a speech in 2010. This was not Annie's opinion, she was just quoting Morrell. If you go to the website she has above, there is a place to leave comments on the article for Morrell.

    2. What did your "healthy diet" consist of? I don't believe she said even once that diet was the ONLY cause, but it is, in fact, a very major cause of autism. There are a large number of conrolled trials using dietary intervention to vastly improve autism (high-fat, low processed carb basically).

  19. Goodness, where to start…
    First, how exactly can you consider Sally Fallon Morrell a reliable source of nutritional information? She has a masters in English, not nutrition, not medical school, not even pre-med. She and her foundation have been criticized many times (by actual doctors) for their anti-soy and anti-vegetarian views. One doctor even stated that “the Foundation is a purveyor of "nutritional myths", largely because they have failed to update their recommendations in light of contradictory evidence”. They even made the Quackwatch website in an essay published by another medical doctor who claims her organization promotes "questionable dietary strategies". You stated in a response to an earlier comment here that “This was not Annie's opinion, she was just quoting Morrell”. As a former teacher you should know enough to vet your sources before proclaiming them gospel. I completely agree with the mother of an autistic child above – claiming autism is caused by a lack of nutrition is not only offensive but without any factual merit.

    I’d like to take you through a number of items you brought up as it appears you are complaining about the changes made to the school lunch program.
    “…a high school student gets 750-850 calories.”
    The old program set a minimum calorie count per meal at 825 with no maximum. The change in calories at the 9-12 grade levels is miniscule. As for caloric intake itself, you might want to reference this:
    You will see that 14-18 year olds need between 1,800 and 2,400 calories per day. Divide those numbers by 3 and you will see that the current lunch program is more than sufficient for most students. 17% of our kids are overweight. That obesity leads to cardiac disease, diabetes, and a whole slew of other PROVEN health problems.


    1. ->She has a masters in English, not nutrition, not medical school, not even pre-med.
      Appeal to authority. Fallacy.

      ->She and her foundation have been criticized many times (by actual doctors) for their anti-soy and anti-vegetarian views
      Of course they have, becuase they are correctly questioning the info that is fed to us.

      ->One doctor even stated that “the Foundation is a purveyor of "nutritional myths", largely because they have failed to update their recommendations in light of contradictory evidence”.
      Another appeal to authority, not supported by fact. Our doctors also have "failed to update their recommendations in light of contradictory evidence". (lipid hypothesis, heart health hypothesis, etc)

    2. God you are an idiot

    3. "You will see that 14-18 year olds need between 1,800 and 2,400 calories per day. Divide those numbers by 3 and you will see that the current lunch program is more than sufficient for most students. 17% of our kids are overweight."

      except that (as this article points out) many kids don't eat anything at home because of their living situation, they are relying on the school lunch program to feed them, which means they're existing on a total of 750-850 calories per day. I don't think putting an upper limit on school lunch calories will do ANYTHING to help reduce the number of overweight kids. It WILL, however, have a great impact on those that rely on this food.

    4. @AnonymousSeptember 4, 2012 4:27 PM

      Most schools in this country also offer breakfast so add another 400-650 calories so anywhere from 1,150 to 1,500 calories a day from the school.
      I question how -many- "kids don't eat anything at home because of their living situation". While I would never claim it doesn't happen, I contend the number is quite small. 2 meals is enough of my tax money to fund through schools. We need to balance benefit to costs and with childhood obesity skyrocketing providing unlimited calories to our kids isn't very smart. I pay taxes for WIC, SNAP, etc. to help others.

  20. ...cont.
    “When it comes to protein, it gets worse… high schoolers get 10-12oz per WEEK!”
    The old program dictated 1.5-2oz. of meat/meat alternative per meal. Grades 9-12 are now required to have 2oz minimum. They have actually increased the minimums on protein, not reduced them. Also, per the CDC, a person ages 14-18 requires between 46 and 52 grams of protein per day. 2oz. of meat is about 14 grams, a cup of milk is 8 grams, and a slice of whole grain bread is another 3.6 grams of protein. You are looking getting over half the minimum required at lunch alone. Add another milk for breakfast, some more whole grains, and even a little meat (see below) and you have hit your daily requirement.

    “Breakfasts are strictly grains, fruit and milk. No protein allowed.”
    I really have no idea where this came from but it is way off base. The old program called for 2 grains or 2 meat/meat alternatives, or 1 of each with every breakfast. The new program requires 1oz of grains and schools can substitute meat/meat substitute after that requirement has been met.

    “…the milk is skim milk, which is basically sugar water.”
    There is no added sugar in skim milk. Yes, there are 12g of sugar in the form of lactose. Whole milk actually has slightly higher sugar content…and 24mg cholesterol.

    Oh, and a subject you failed to mention at all is that the old program required ½-3/4 cup fruit and vegetables combined per day. The new program requires ¾-1 cup vegetables plus ½-1 cup fruit every day.

    I’m sorry but I have nothing but praise for the new school lunch programs as do most nutritionists and doctors. Yes, the total calorie count has reduced slightly because they have removed some of the empty calories and replaced them with foods that have been PROVEN to be healthier for you. You claim that the children that can afford another meal will buy one…even though they are getting a larger quantity of food under the new program than they did with the old? That doesn’t add up.

    “But those children who can't afford another meal are the ones who won't be getting food at home on a regular basis.”
    Yes, unfortunately we have a number of sob stories in this country and kids do go hungry. That is why we have things like WIC, SNAP, and free and reduced lunches for kids. We even feed them breakfast now…some of them for free as well.

  21. I'm an RD (and yes, I did take anatomy) and I'm currently rewriting menus to fit USDA's guidelines for a residential facility for children- obviously high risk children that have been through the system, gone without meals and have serious food deprivation issues. I've seen high school aged children ask what leaf lettuce was and sometimes they do sabotoge their behavioral plan to stay longer so they can have a good place to stay. And yes, these new guidelies have concerned me with some of the same things that you have pointed out, especially when thinking of foods that encourage a good education, but we have to do it. And even more so, the schools rely on the money that comes in to pay for the food. The schools have been criticized greatly for the foods they are feeding the children- with good reason. However, logistically speaking, better food requires better trained (and better paid) cooks and higher quality foods... that again, cost more money.

    Everyone has advice for the cafeteria, but fail to recognize all of the different aspects that go into planning a meal- from cost, to production, to food safety, to food preference, and fitting in those pesky USDA guideless. I appreciate your heart for the children in poverty, but there are more children in different situations that represent recipiants of the free and reduced lunches. Many are killing themselves with (amoung other things)a lack of fruits and vegetables. If the USDA were to plan meal guidelies simply to serve children that are starving, I think they would be failing others. That is the problem with government run programs- they have to appease the masses. And I'm guessing there are many other factors (money driven, perhaps?)that influence them.

    I was furious when I first saw the guidelines on paper- and am still upset about many apsects of them, but seeing what is possible to provide has eased my mind a little. One of our problems is not being able to fit all of the food on the plate. Total fat is not even looked at- only no trans fat and 10% saturated fat.

    Unfortunately, it's never going to be perfect. I would suggest that if you are that upset about it you could look into supporting efforts outside of the USDA to provide food for families of poverty. As for the other populations, it comes down to the indiviual families, as you pointed out. We can always encourage good eating habits, but again so many factors come to play. Children with behavioral disorders (that we see, at least) primarily come from hurting homes with little time to menu plan and little money to pay for good food, and food deprivation almost always leads to obesity becasue they never get over the fear of not having it so they eat too much when it's avaliable. I could go on:)It breaks my heart, but I can do my best within the guidelies I have and I can give my own children what I know is good for them.

  22. I am an RD. I won't go into a lot of detail because a few already have. I just want to say a few quick things.
    1. I hope anyone who reads this will note that you should seek nutrition advise from a registered dietitian. All of us did take an anatomy and physiology class in addition to numerous classes exploring the details of nutrition leading to a "big picture" understanding of nutrition. One fact here and one fact there can not give you the bigger picture. Please do not believe everything you hear from unqualified people.
    2. Research shows that children at the age of 12 months can safely consume 2% milk instead of whole milk. We are finding that they do just as well developmentally without the whole milk. However, we do know that children with a family history of heart disease and obesity are possibly doing greater harm than good with whole milk. Opinions in the medical world are somewhat mixed on exactly when to switch to skim; however, high school students (even elementary) should certainly be drinking skim milk. It has the SAME nutrients as whole milk other than the fat, calories, and cholesterol.
    3. Based on curren research, it seems that staunch limits of quantity is wrong; however, there may be a lot of cost issues rolled into that.

    I am very disappointed to read this post. I know that you want to do what is best for you children as all moms do. I believe that you have their best interest at heart. However, you are uninformed and you are misinforming others.

    1. ->I am an RD.I hope anyone who reads this will note that you should seek nutrition advise from a registered dietitian
      Appeal to authority. Learn to debate the strength of the argument itself, not the person presenting the argument.
      ->Research shows that children at the age of 12 months can safely consume 2% milk instead of whole milk. We are finding that they do just as well developmentally without the whole milk.
      Correlation is not causation. There are other things going on that must be considered, lke the REST of the diet. Do you have any references for controlled studies?
      -> It has the SAME nutrients as whole milk other than the fat, calories, and cholesterol.
      No, it lacks the fat soluble vitamins and minerals, and is relpaced by synthetic vitamin D. There are many types of vitamin D, all do different things in the body. The synth Vitamin D is only one type. Don't be shortsighted.

    2. For actual science with regard to nutrition, a good place to being is Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. Sorry, but the majority of Registered Dieticians learned the same (wrong) ideas about nutrition that the majority of doctors learned. I don't really care what most RDs or doctors think about nutrition, because they're wrong - unless they've taken pains, recently, to find out which science was wrong, and to revise and update their views accordingly. Some have done so.

      America is very sick because of what has passed for "nutritional" advice since ~ the late 1970s. Those reading this, who care about their health - and their children's health - have no choice but to a) *learn* what's been going on since Ancel Keys' (wrong, but widely influential) saturated-fat-phobia came to dominate ideas about nutrition, or b) don't learn, eat your bread and cereal and other refined carbs, stint on your animal fats, and keep it up until your diet inevitably results in metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc. etc. etc.

      If you won't or can't take it upon yourself to read a 500 page book about the science that gave Americans our ideas on nutrition, there's an hour-long video with similar information in it, about how bad science has caused the obesity epidemic.

  23. Well said, Annie. Well said. I am sharing this post!

  24. It is amazing how many so called professionals in the medical field believe the bs they are taught in school. Simple common sense should tell you that adulterated food cannot possibly be as good or healthy for us as foods that are left as mother nature created them. One does not have to have a degree in order to use common sense. Studies don't mean a whole lot,unless you know the details of the study and who paid for it and what results they were looking for. Give me simple food such as my great grandmother ate including the pork fat from the family pig and I hope to live as long as she did and be as healthy and as sharp. This make believe food they are feeding children these days is criminal neglect in my opinion. The children who need outside help the most are the ones who will suffer the consequenses of this insufficient diet and once they are adults, society will pay the price one way or the other.

  25. Annie,
    Started to respond last night and had several tabs open. I carelessly closed the wrong tab. Instead of starting over I went to bed.
    It will be shorter this time with links instead of my verbiage.
    A very interesting blog dealing with diet/brain problems is Emily Deans Evolutionary Psychiarty.
    Emily is at Harvard. Go to her "map" (archive) page and read to your hearts content.
    Google phytic acid, lectins, gluten or merely go to this page.


  26. ***Schools CAN serve protein at breakfast on the old meal pattern AND on the new meal pattern.
    Deb Egeland NDDPI

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