I have loved food for as long as I can remember. Growing up, lunch was always my favorite period at school. My passion for food is the reason why I love to encourage people to grow their own food, and to share the benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables with my community. Fortunately, my kiddos are attending a school that provides free breakfast to all students and free or reduced lunch to many of their students. They also provide free summer meals for families who have children between 1-17 years old.
Since many students spend most of their day on campus, the district’s wellness policy plays an important role in their health and well-being, which is why I have found it so important to be involved in our district’s wellness committee. I enjoy participating in the district’s nutrition meetings where parents, community members and stakeholders help to provide feedback on a menu that is nutritious, delicious and affordable for families and the district.
Nutrition services programs are doing an amazing job serving school communities. They provide meals with a smile and who doesn’t enjoy eating a meal with friends? They even provide meals to students who have special dietary needs and food allergies. There are many benefits to students eating school meals but here are my top 5!
1. They’re Nutritious
Nutritious can mean many things. To my children’s school district, nutritious means following the strict nutrition guidelines set by the USDA which include offering whole grains, a variety of fruits and veggies, lean protein, milk and meeting calorie ranges while limiting saturated fat and sodium. In Hawthorne, they serve student meals with less sodium, a variety of whole grains and a variety of fruits and vegetables. The district even works with local businesses ensuring that they adjust their recipes to meet the guidelines. They also provide nutritional information for every item on the school website. Both parents and students have access to those menus and nutrition information. School meals always provide balanced nutrition to students to make sure that they get all the necessary nutrients a growing body needs.
2. They’re Cost Effective
School meals not only provide a variety of food options, but they are also low in price. For a non-free or reduced lunch, the cost of a meal is usually between $2-3. This includes offerings such as as orange chicken with brown rice, tamales with cauliflower ceviche served with fresh fruits, veggies and choice of milk, all for only $2.75! That’s cheaper than an unhealthy value meal at a drive thru. I used to pack lunches but there are only so many cold lunch options or sandwiches that you can come up with and usually half the items would come back uneaten. Not to mention, the cost of me packing a lunch is almost always higher than $2.75. I love knowing that my kids will have a freshly prepared hot meal for such a reasonable price.
3. School Meals are a Time Saver
Although making lunches are not all that time consuming, as a busy parent, every minute can be precious. It means enjoying a cup of coffee or tea in peace, taking a quick shower, washing more dishes or have a morning snuggle. School lunch allows us to spend more time doing the things that matter. More importantly, you don’t have to worry about forgotten lunches or finding out that your child’s expensive lunch pails are missing again.
4. So Much Variety
Variety is the spice of life. The schools not only provide foods that students are familiar with and love (like pizza and chicken nuggets), but they also try to introduce foods that can expand a child’s palate. Our district rotates in new menu items like chicken tinga and tamales while also providing salad bars with four to six different fresh options daily. They even offer “Share Bins”, which allow students to place packaged and unopened foods in a bin for others to take who didn’t buy lunch or for those who would like seconds.
5. They’re Delicious!
We all want our food to taste good. A meal can be healthy, cost effective and beautifully presented but if it doesn’t taste good our kiddos won’t eat it. School meals have come a long way from the days of sloppy joes and mystery meat. Our middle schools offer pozole for lunch and freshly made smoothies can be found at all grade levels. They even hold taste tests before serving a new item to make sure that students and community members can provide input on what is being served.
I encourage you to stop by your child’s school and have lunch with them or simply browse your school’s menu and remind your student of the meals they offer. You can also talk to a nutrition services director or a nutrition services staff member and ask how you can learn more or get involved. Since nutrition and physical activity go hand in hand, organizations like Action for Healthy Kids and Active Schools are great resources for both students and parents.