"Before the school year began, we had a staff-wide meeting. The women who worked in the cafeteria were excited they actually got stoves to cook on. The year before, all they had was one microwave. All the food came in frozen and they had to heat each individual styrofoam plate one by one."
Anna Simonds and Rachel Faust have been teachers with Teach for America for the past several years—Anna starting in New Orleans, Rachel in Miami, and now together in New York City. They've seen firsthand the impact of nutrition in our schools—100 percent of the students in their schools qualify for free breakfast and lunch meals served in the cafeterias.
While free meals are ostensibly an important benefit to public schooling for low-income families, the government and school board-approved menu is hardly what one might consider healthy.
"Cafeterias were usually in trailers," explains Simonds. "Breakfast everyday had to have a fruit component, so usually it was fruit juice. But if you turned over the bottle you'd read the label that said 'contains no fruit.' So basically it was water with sugar and artificial flavors."
It's true—schools are required to provide a fruit at breakfast. But the rules are so opaque that almost anything could qualify—even sugar-sweetened beverages. The Department of Agriculture is responsible for compiling the nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, and the 81-page document is loaded with seemingly arbitrary rules.
For example, whole milk is off limits, but artificially flavored and colored fat-free milk with high fructose corn syrup is totally acceptable. Whole milk contains calcium, vitamin D, protein, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, vitamin B12, and zinc, and doesn't need to be chemically fortified like low-fat or nonfat milk does. But fat-free milk has about 50 fewer calories and less fat than whole milk, so it's considered the healthier option.
This bureaucratic view on nutrition—that the childhood obesity epidemic can be contained simply by focusing on a kid's caloric intake rather than nutritional density of the food they're eating—tends to get in the way of the policy put in place to keep kids healthy like the National School Breakfast and Lunch programs.
Twenty-one million kids qualify for school breakfast programs, but unfortunately only half of those kids actually get to eat the meal they're allowed. And not only is it affecting their physical health—kids who go hungry are chronically overweight due to high amounts of cheap, processed food that makes up their day to day diets—but their mental health, too. Kids who eat breakfast perform 17.5 percent better on standardized tests.
"Focus is a huge challenge for these kids. When you're hungry, you struggle," says Faust, who currently works in a school in New York City. During Simonds' tenure in Louisiana, "Almost every day around 1:30, 2 o'clock, kids would pass out cold because they hadn't eaten enough. New York is a little better—I see better adherence to regulations here. But I still wouldn't eat what they have to eat in it's current state."
Schools start the year with a budget for their food programs, and both Faust and Simonds noticed that when the cash started to dwindle, lunches changed. "That's when they'd consider ketchup a vegetable, or a bag of Sun Chips would count as a vegetable and a whole grain," notes Simonds. Most schools aren't even equipped to store fresh produce—they don't have the money for industrial refrigerators—instead storing apples and oranges in huge storage containers that lived in service closets for weeks.
Regardless of the quality of food, plates would still be cleared after every meal. Simonds remembers students from her class "shoveling down food as soon as it was in front of them, eating so fast because they were so hungry that I had to remind them to slow down and chew."
Teachers like Faust and Simonds do the best they can—stuffing lunch bags with extra food for the kids they know probably won't have another meal that day, encouraging their students to drink water throughout the day, and creating a conversation about nutrition as often as possible. The two young teachers even planned a health week at their school, which culminated in a dinner for all the families at the school and was catered with organic and fresh foods.
"Parents came up to us and told us they were surprised—that they'd never thought their kids would enjoy eating a salad. One woman had never seen her child eat an avocado before and her mind was totally blown!" Simonds laughed.
It's clear that parents, teachers, and even school administrators are trying to make the best choices for kids—but anything from budget restrictions to simple lack of knowledge can get in the way of healthier eating.
It's part of our mission with Thrive Gives—to make healthy food accessible to everyone. That's why we offer students, teachers, and low-income families a free membership to Thrive Market along with educational tools to help them navigate the world of healthy living, one step at a time. Together, we can help make a difference in changing food policy and eliminating hunger in America.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho
We believe that everyone deserves the right to access healthy food. But even in the United States, it can prove impossible for some families. So we created Thrive Gives: a program that gives access, family by family, to affordable, healthy, and wholesome food. Click here to see if you qualify for a free Thrive Gives membership!