Beyond the Lunch Line by Emily Kiernan

Writer’s Reflection

For Inquiry 3, I decided to write about the debate on reforming school cafeterias. This issue comes up frequently in my nutrition class, and it is something I am very interested but knew little about- so I felt it would be good to investigate the different sides of the argument when researching for the paper. After I picked my topic, I thought I definitely knew what my take on the issue was. Why wouldn’t anyone want to change the unhealthy foods in cafeterias if they are clearly contributing to childhood obesity? I thought that any arguments opposing the reforms were just silly. However, the research I found quickly weakened my opinion. There were so many opposing viewpoints in the research, and a lot of them were logical reasons as to why reforming school cafeterias is not effective. Although these sources did not change my overall opinion that making food in cafeterias healthier would be a good thing, they did force my to narrow my opinion. Simply saying that I was in favor of reforming the cafeterias was not enough- because the problem of childhood obesity originates from so many different factors. Therefore, I had to develop my own argument by complying the sources I found and combining them into a realistic solution that could attempt to solve every issue presented by opposing arguments. Therefore, Inquiry 3 introduced me to the idea that opinions are formed based off of all the information we are presented with on a subject- and what we choose to listen to or what we choose to ignore, and how we respond to what we hear.

Overall, I think I did a good job of carefully transitioning my outside sources into this paper. The only thing I am not totally happy with is the structure of the paper itself- I had a hard time finding the right spot to introduce my own opinions, because I didn’t feel it made sense to put it at the beginning without background information. But by putting it at the end of the paper, it seems a little choppy to me.


The Average American eats about 29 lbs of French fries, 23 lbs of pizza, 24 lbs of ice cream, and 53 gallons of soda per year (“Food Consumption in America”). Therefore, it is no wonder that the country battles with serious health care problems. The United States is known worldwide for its gluttonous eating habits. The poor American diet has led to a serious increase in the obesity rate in this country, and currently more than 190 million Americans are overweight or obese. Even more frightening, the childhood obesity rate has tripled in the last thirty years, and today one third of American children are overweight or obese (Doane, Dovrak). Some blame the prevalence of stationary activities, such as TV and videogames, others blame parents for serving such unhealthy meals, while others attack school cafeterias.

Recent studies are showing that the food being served in school cafeterias by the National School Lunch Program is a major contributor to childhood obesity. Although students enjoy their everyday chicken nuggets, French fries, and chocolate milk, these foods lack the major components of a healthy diet: fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Therefore, different proposals have been introduced to reform the nation’s cafeterias so that students are not given the unhealthy options. This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to establish federal guidelines for the National School Lunch Program, forcing cafeterias to “reduce additives, fat, salt and sugar that are fueling the childhood obesity crisis and add the whole grains, dark vegetables and fruit that will make kids healthier” (Dvorak). Some schools, especially those in California, have already radically and abruptly changed their menus. Although the proposals seem to be a good way to stop childhood obesity in its tracks, many are unhappy with the changes. The reformations have sparked debates involving school administrators, parents, students, nutritionists, the government, and large food companies. Every group has taken a different stance on the issue, which is why it has become difficult to fully implement the proposals because there are “Too many players with too many agendas” (Dvorak).

Most school administrators disagree with the idea of improving the nutrition of the cafeterias mainly because it is costly to the school itself. Raw produce is significantly more expensive than processed foods, and most school districts are only given $2.47 a meal per child by the National School Lunch Program and any extra costs of food past the set standard must be met by the school itself (Christensen). School administrators cannot willingly make these changes because they feel their main priority is education, and “every dollar that has to be supported by the general fund is a dollar out of the classroom” (Christensen). Also, schools are able to make a profit for themselves by selling fatty treats to students- “Sale from vending machines, fund-raisers and school stores often sustain parent-teacher associations, sports teams and student clubs” (Martin). However, the Obama Administration recently decided to increase the standard per meal by six cents. Still, administrators argue that six cents isn’t enough to make a significant difference (Christensen). Therefore, unless the government is willing to further increase the funding given to the National School Lunch Program, the majority of school administrators will continue to refuse to change their menus.

Many parents are also speaking up against the national reformations in cafeterias. Some feel that the reforms infringe on the rights of children to make their own decisions about what to eat and what not to eat. Others argue that sweets are an essential part of childhood innocence, and that by banning cupcakes and cookies on holidays in schools, they are sending children an unhappy message. Parents in Texas even tried to pass a “Safe Cupcake Amendment” to protect sweets in the classroom (Martin). However, the majority of parents are completely in favor of making cafeteria food healthier, especially those who are aware that obesity is the number one contributor to heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. Students obviously must also be factored into the equation- their opinion of the food does matter. Most students are not a fan of the green leafy vegetables and dark colored bread they are beginning to serve in cafeterias. They prefer the fatty and greasy foods, and therefore some members of the National Lunch Program are worried that even attempting to serve healthier foods will only be a waste of their already scarce funds.

Overall, protecting the wellbeing of American children should be the first priority. Few can argue that the health of the nation’s children is unimportant. Therefore, a child’s health cannot and should never be compromised because of financial issues. As the Department of Agriculture’s Secretary Tom Vilsack says, “We found money for small businesses. We found money for small banks. We certainly should find money for small kids” (Christensen). The National School Lunch Program must work to find healthy solutions for meals at a good price. As for big junk food companies, it is their duty as businesses to meet the needs of the market they sell to. Therefore, it is their own responsibility to adapt to the demands of the market-which is in this case asking for healthier foods- if they want to stay successful. It is only logical that they find ways to make healthier alternatives. Parents and students must understand the intensity of this problem and be willing to make at least subtle changes, such as cutting sodas and fried foods from the menu. For those that cannot seem to let go of their former eating habits, they must be properly educated about the dangers of obesity. I strongly believe that reforming the school cafeterias will bring about positive consequences because it will be one factor that can work to effectively stop the precursors of childhood obesity.

Even though serving food in cafeterias will improve students’ health, it does not mean that they will completely surrender their junk food cravings and give into what is offered. Some problems with reforming the cafeterias are that children find food from other sources- they bring an unhealthy lunch from home or find a way to get fast food later in the day after they have skipped the healthy lunch (Just). Another huge problem, according to nutritionist and dietician Christina M. Ohlinger, is that focusing on the health of food in cafeterias tends to “stigmatize the kids that are fat and doesn’t really solve the problem” (Ohlinger). Overall health is not always equated with body size, and many times kids that are at a healthy weight are not eating healthy. Christina Ohinger also asserts “how we feed our children is important no matter how much we weigh” (Ohlinger). Therefore, if the reforms of cafeterias are to pass, they must be nationwide. They absolutely cannot depend on the obesity rates in a certain area or school district, but simply must be consistent in every school to promote a healthy lifestyle in every child.

Although healthier food in cafeterias will bring about favorable changes in the day-to-day lifestyles of children, cafeterias are not the only source of the obesity problem. There are so many other factors that contribute to the poor health of many children, such as parental influence on food choice and exercise. Therefore, every factor must be recognized when drafting policies to remedy the increasing obesity rates. Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign has been debated throughout the country just as the new cafeteria reforms have been thoroughly discussed. However, I believe this policy is efficient because it recognizes not only the changes in cafeterias that must be made, but also the necessity of including exercise and educating parents on what constitutes a healthy diet. In my opinion, the “Let’s Move” campaign is expertly drafted because it attempts to solve every issue contributing to this country’s health problems in children. It addresses food and beverage companies by encouraging them to find healthier alternatives and to make nutrition labels easier to understand. It pushes the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which gives the National School Lunch Program “$10 billion over 10 years to improve school meals” (Givhan). The campaign also includes the Healthy Food Financing Initiatives, which “would invest $400 million to help bring grocery stores into areas dubbed “food deserts,” or areas too impoverished to afford healthier raw produce (Givhan). Through this initiative, healthier, unprocessed foods would be closer to certain school districts that struggle with the financial costs of a healthier cafeteria menu, and therefore the shipping costs of these foods would be diminished. The foods could then become more affordable to every school due to the proximity of where they come from. The campaign even works to improve the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, so that “instead of focusing on athleticism or stupid human tricks, it will address health and well-being” (Givhan). This change will end the stigmatization of the more out of shape looking kids, and simply encourage all kids to understand the importance of being healthy. Due to the campaign, many public schools are now establishing “school gardens,” where the raw produce that is served in cafeterias is grown by the students themselves on school property. According to Christina Ohlinger, these gardens are extremely effective because kids take pride in having grown the food and knowing where it came from- which is a value that can be carried on with them throughout the rest of their lives to sustain their health (Ohlinger).

According to David R. Just and Brian Wansink “When healthy foods are forced upon children, they will resist and dislike not only the heavy-hand approach but also the food associated with that heavy hand. We improve school lunches by nudging children to make the right choices on their own” (Just). I believe this is the key to actually changing the way a child thinks about his or her meals. The key to change is moderation, and I think that moderation will only be achieved through education. If students are gradually educated on what it means to live a healthy lifestyle, they can learn the importance of a healthy diet and exercise and carry those ideas with them for the rest of their lives. Therefore, the reformations in the National Lunch Program need to be less about forcing kids to eat healthy food and more about teaching them what it means to live a healthy lifestyle. Giving students the option of healthier foods in the cafeterias themselves will be a positive addition to this education.

In sophomore year of high school, my curriculum required a “Personal Health and Well-Being” class. I rolled my eyes at the title, thinking it would be a big joke and a waste of time. However, when we began discussing the problems with the American diet, it was a real wake up call for me and my other classmates. We soon realized how serious the issue was, especially when we were presented with alarming facts and statistics about obesity’s correlation with heart disease and cancer. This class scared me into understanding the importance of being healthy, especially at an early age. I spread what I was learning to my family and friends, determined to protect them from the dangerous path. The education I learned in my health class enabled me to see the big picture, and although I sometimes still fall back into old habits, I am now well informed about the right lifestyle choices, and try to abide by them through subtle changes. I strongly believe that with increasing lectures on personal well being, there comes hope that the children of the next generation will never have to experience the frightening health problems that are beginning to face our own children today.

Works Cited

Christensen, Jen. “Schools Struggle to Feed Kids Healthy Food.” CNN Health. CNN, 29 Sept. 2010. Web. 18 Oct. 2011. <‌2010/‌HEALTH/‌09/‌29/‌‌index.html>.

Doane, Seth. “Battling Obesity in America .” CBS News. N.p., 8 Jan. 2010 . Web. 25 Oct. 2011. <‌stories/‌2010/‌01/‌07/‌eveningnews/‌main6069163.shtml>.

Dvorak, Petula. “It Isn’t Easy Being Green, School Cafeterias Learn.” The Washington Post [Washington D.C.] 2 Sept. 2011: B01. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 10 Oct. 2011. <‌hottopics/‌lnacademic/‌?flapID=news>.

“Food Consumption in America .” Chart. The Credit Blog. CreditLoan , n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2011.

Givhan, Robin. “First Lady Michelle Obama: ‘Let’s Move’ and Work on Childhood Obesity Plan.” The Washington Post 10 Feb. 2010: n. pag. The Washington Post. Web. 10 Oct. 2011. <‌wp-dyn/‌content/‌article/‌2010/‌02/‌09/‌AR2010020900791.html>.

Just, David, and Brian Wansick. “How Smart Cafeterias Could Fight Childhood Obesity.” The Atlantic 26 Oct. 2010 : n. pag. The Atlantic . Web. 18 Oct. 2011. <‌life/‌archive/‌2010/‌10/‌how-smart-cafeterias-could-fight-childhood-obesity/‌65098/>.

Martin, Andrew. “The School Cafeteria, on a Diet.” The New York Times 5 Sept. 2007: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 10 Oct. 2011. <‌2007/‌09/‌05/‌business/‌05junkfood.html?pagewanted=all>.

Ohlinger, Christina M, Ms. Personal interview. 20 Oct. 2011.