Obesity and poor nutrition among school-aged students are big problems in the United States, and almost everyone points the finger of blame at schools. Although there are some federal standards regulating the food that can be sold in schools, many school districts, particularly those that have financial difficulties, turn to outside food and drink contracts to increase revenue. These contracts allow fast-food companies, vending machine companies, and others to set up shop in public schools, sharing some of their revenues with the school itself. This is why many kids in U. S. public schools have access to sodas, candy, and fast food, allowing them to skip over the more nutritious school lunches.
The Problem with School Lunches
School lunches are far from health food, though. There are a number of issues that complicate the process of providing nutritious school lunches to children. One issue is that the nutritional content of these lunches is federally mandated, so school districts and individual schools have to conform to certain requirements. Rather than spending the time and energy necessary to fulfill these requirements within a healthy, fresh menu, many schools turn to large companies with contracts to provide food that fits the federal program. This means that it's easier for schools to provide bad-tasting options like tasteless pizza and unhealthy options like chicken nuggets if they can get those things in bulk without breaking federal requirements.
Private Interests in Schools
Another issue that hinders change in school nutrition is the interests of large corporations who have a high stake in feeding children. These corporations provide a large amount of food to public schools, which represents a significant amount of steady revenue each year. Given this situation, it's not in the corporations' best interests for things to change very much. If new nutritional standards or significant changes to school lunch menus are proposed, these companies can be relied upon to cause a stir, using their considerable influence via lobbying and financial favors to ensure that the changes don't happen.
Alternative Offerings Contribute to Health Problems
Of course, involving private interests in public school nutrition isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some people are of the opinion that if the federal government stopped regulating and providing school meals, private companies could step in to take the job over and could do a better job because they would have less bureaucracy to deal with. Although this could be true in theory, some research has indicated that private companies offering food to children in schools have a tendency to be harmful to kids' diets. In one study, children who ate food provided by private interests were found to consume more calories overall, more sugar, less fiber, and less vitamin B than those who stuck to school lunches (Kakarala, Keast, & Hoerr, 2009).
Looking to Parents
With so many complications plaguing the school lunch issue, it may seem like public schooling is at an impasse with regard to nutrition. If that's the case, it may be time to look to other options for improving nutrition and decreasing obesity among school children. Whenever the issue of child nutrition comes up, school food is the first thing to be examined, with grams of fat and overall calories earning most of the attention. Hardly anyone bothers to consider the effect that parents have on this issue. Even in terms of nutrition education, all the focus is on wellness programs in schools and educating kids about proper nutrition. But all the nutrition education in the world wouldn't fix poor eating habits in the home.
Good Nutrition Starts at Home
Perhaps instead of counting calories in school lunches and vilifying private interests who provide vending machines to schools, society should be attempting to educate parents on how to encourage healthy eating in the home. If interventions and educational programs were targeted at parents instead of always at their children, some real good might be done. Most kids have a vague idea of what is and isn't good for them, particularly if they attend a public school with a nutrition education program. But if they are used to fast food and soda in the home, they are likely to choose fast food and soda when they come to school, no matter how many other options are available. If public policy and outreach started in the home, kids might just bring better eating practices to school with them.