Healthier School Lunches: Will They Actually Change What Kids Eat?

Is serving more veggies really going to persuade kids to eat them?

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School lunches are getting a makeover, announced Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday. Thanks in part to the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity, school meals will now feature more whole wheat, fruits and vegetables and less sodium. The new standards also set a calorie limit and require milk be low- or non-fat.

While the lunches are a step in the right direction, they aren’t as healthy as they could have been. In part, that’s because last year Congress caved to pressure from potato growers and those who produce frozen pizzas and threw out parts of the original proposal from the Department of Agriculture. In doing so, Congress allowed tomato paste on pizza to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now, and barred the department from limiting servings of potatoes to two per week.

As a result, the new regulations do not put a limit on any vegetable, including potatoes, but set a minimum weekly requirement for healthier varieties — those that are leafy and green or red and orange. Under the new model, pizza will still be served, but it will be updated with a whole wheat crust and less sodium. On the side:  sweet potato fries, grape tomatoes and apple sauce. While that seems like a good idea in theory, I’m not convinced it will actually have much of an effect on what kids eat.

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Reporting on education has made me privy to the eating habits of children. I’ve sat in classrooms where they’ve given bright orange sweet potato fries a suspicious glance, nibbled a bite, then tossed the rest in the trash. Other times I’ve seen kids go through the cafeteria line only to walk away with mozzarella sticks, potato chips, an apple and chocolate milk. The sticks and chips were washed down with the milk, but the lonesome apple ended up in the trash.

Along with the new standards, the USDA included examples of what school lunches would look like. Here are two of the sample meals, before and after, along with my prediction for what would actually wind up in students’ stomachs (based on my experience as a former member of the picky eater club):

Before: Bean and cheese burritos, apple sauce, orange juice and milk.
After: Turkey and cheese sub sandwiches on whole wheat, refried beans, jicama, green pepper strips, cantaloupe wedges, skim milk, mustard and light mayo and low-fat ranch dip.
My prediction: Students would eat the sandwiches and turn up their noses at some or all of the remaining offerings.

Before: Hot dogs on a bun, canned pears, celery and carrots with ranch dressing, and low-fat chocolate milk.
After: Whole wheat spaghetti with meat sauce, whole wheat roll with margarine, cooked green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi halves, low-fat milk, low-fat ranch dip.
My prediction: With a little luck, kids won’t notice the whole wheat noodles and will thus eat the pasta and roll. They also might swallow the kiwi. I’m much more dubious about the veggie sides: how many kids have you met who happily gobbled up green beans and broccoli?

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This is not to say that schools should serve less-healthy foods just because that’s what kids seem to prefer. But a smarter alternative to menus packed with multiple veggie sides that will probably go from tray to trash would be to utilize the healthy pizza model and make kid favorites healthier. If done correctly, this will still allow schools to meet the new requirements, and might actually curb childhood obesity in the process. Because, as anyone who has ever tried to diet can tell you, it’s much more effective to find healthy versions of your favorite foods rather than ban them altogether and pretend you’ll eat only carrot sticks all day. To that end, bring back the bean-and-cheese burrito — just dish it out on a whole wheat tortilla, with low-sodium beans and reduced-fat cheese.

Kayla Webley is a staff writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley, on Facebook or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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