Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The War in the Lunchroom

“I hate having a class right after lunch.”

I hear my coworkers, my classmates, and myself speak those words every couple of days. Nearly every teacher I know would rather have their students in the morning. More work gets done and the students are, generally, better behaved. Come lunchtime, though, a flip is switched. Once sane and sedate students become bombs of distracted energy. And why is this? Part of it is the fact that lunch is the one truly social time of the day for the students. They can laugh, play, gossip. When they reenter the classroom, they need to remember what it is to be a student, which can take precious time.

But that’s not all. There is one very noticeable factor that does much to influence student behavior, student work habits, and student health. And that is the nutritional content of what the students are putting into their bodies during lunch.

The United States Department of Agriculture recently released a follow up to a late 1990’s survey of American school eating habits. The food being offered by schools (and in the South Bronx, over 95% of my students are eligible for free lunches) is moving closer to the USDA standards of healthy foods. The percentage of secondary and high schools meeting the saturated fat levels doubled from 1999 to 2007. 85% of schools offered lunches that met proper levels of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron (USDA 2007).

All this sounds great. School lunches are getting healthier. The problem is being solved. However, the study continues. “Foods sold in competition with USDA school meals were widely available on campus, particularly in secondary schools. The most common sources of competitive foods were a la carte sales in the cafeteria, fundraisers, and vending machines” (USDA 2007). While healthy foods are available, students are choosing not to eat them. Instead, hard-earned quarters and dollars are put into vending machines or into the hands of school administrators who sell caffeinated and highly sugared soft drinks to the student population as fund raisers.

The result? Students are taking money (which for our poorer students could and should be spent on better things) and ingesting high quantities of processed sugar and caffeine, all while letting their hormones and emotions go wild in the lunchroom. It’s no wonder they return to the classroom sweaty and hyperactive. “Among students who consumed one or more competitive foods, the most commonly consumed food groups (for both NSLP participants and nonparticipants) were dessert/snack items and beverages other than milk” (USDA 2007). Students are getting cakes, candy, and sodas and are then expected to behave like scholars.

What needs to be done? Perhaps schools need to offer healthy desserts. I know that schools offer fruit as an alternative. But the fruit that makes it to my South Bronx lunch room is battered, bruised, and wholly unappealing. Barring that, vending machines need to be removed and administrators should face penalties for providing unhealthy alternatives to the provided lunches. Otherwise, they have no one to blame but themselves when a 7th grader on a sugar high is sent to their offices at around 12:30 PM.

Source Cited:

United States Department of Agriculture. (2007).
School nutrition dietary assessment study III – Summary of findings. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.fns.usda.gov/ora/menu/published/CNP/FILES/SNDAIII-SummaryofFindings.pdf.

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