10 Reasons to Forget #SchoolLunch Haters and Support #RealSchoolFood

by Dayle Hayes, MS, RD on August 24, 2015

To the mommy bloggers, food celebrities, academic researchers, restaurant chains and media channels who are using the #BackToSchool bandwagon to blame School Lunch for the ills of the US food system (while promoting their own products, endorsements and programs), it’s time to STOP. Trying to refute your inaccurate claims, staged photos, out-date sound bites and negative descriptions is a waste of precious time we could be working together to support #RealSchoolFood for real hungry kids in California and every other state.

If you truly want to improve school meals, here are 10 effective ways to support the hard-working school nutrition heroes who are reshaping local and national food systems, teaching kids where food comes from, and feeding millions of children their best meals of the day – every school day – in thousands of schools across this state and the USA.

#1: Please get some real photos of #RealSchoolFood. Your staged, stock and decades-old photos do a terrible disservice to the dedicated chefs and cooks who offer gorgeous cafeteria lines, produce bars and grab-n-go options to students every day. Need help finding photos? We’ve got your back with thousands of photos on Facebook and PinterestTray Talk also features #RealSchoolFood from hundreds of districts. These gorgeous, on-trend Bánh Mì sandwiches are a new item on the menu at the Lodi Unified School District high school.


#2: Please move on from ‘ketchup is a vegetable.’ Seriously people, check your facts. This was a stupid proposal in 1981, which never made it into a regulation. Learn the details of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010. There are specific requirements for five different vegetable sub-groups, including Red-Orange. All across the state, the Center for Ecoliteracy helps schools promote colorful produce and California Thursdays with #RealSchoolFood like this gorgeous fresh salad at the Natomas Unified School District.


#3: Please read the research comparing school lunch to lunches brought from home. Studies from Baylor (TX), Tufts (MA, illustrated in this graphic) and Virginia Tech (VA) confirm that lunches brought from home rarely meet the tough nutrition standards now required in all USDA school meals programs. Many contain sugary drinks and snack foods that cannot be sold as #RealSchoolFood.


#4: Please dig deeper into the causes of food waste in schools. Kids throw away perfectly picked organic oranges and bento box baby bananas with cute notes written on them – just like they throw away school lunch items. Two of the best solutions that reduce food waste in cafeterias work for #RealSchoolFood and lunches brought from home are Recess Before Lunch and Longer Lunch Periods. This USDA poster illustrates the effects of each strategy.


#5: Please recognize that school nutrition professionals frequently do not have the administrative support they need to succeed. School nutrition heroes have a tough balancing act with complex government regulations, restrictive budgets and limited input on school schedules that affect recess options and the length of lunch periods. Like you, they care deeply about feeding children well – and they are trying to do the best they can with what they have. Maybe you can work together on a grant for a salad bar or school garden? Many of the #RealSchoolFood veggies served on this salad bar at Solvang School Viking Café come through a partnership with the local Santa Ynez Valley Fruit and Vegetable Rescue.


#6: Please talk WITH rather than AT school nutrition directors. Arrange a friendly meeting with your local nutrition director. Find out about their everyday challenges and what changes they would make if they could – maybe new equipment or more local foods. Find out how you can work together to do what’s best for kids. If you look for common ground, you are likely to find it. Believe every school should have a school garden? Get out there and help a school grow one for #RealSchoolFood to be served in your district. Fort Bragg Middle School has produce that is worth bragging about: “Beautiful jalapeños, cherry tomatoes and regular tomatoes. Fresh picked today! Lucky students at Fort Bragg Middle School get them for lunch tomorrow.”


#7: Please be realistic because nutrition perfection is not possible on $1.50-1.75 per meal. That’s how much the average school district has to spend directly on food. While meal prices and USDA reimbursement rates provide more money that also goes to pay for labor, equipment and overhead costs. If you want all organic, GMO-free, clean-label, local, scratch-cooked meals, you are going to have to help schools lobby local, state and federal decisions makers to provide more money for school meals. 2015 is a critical year for child nutrition and food insecurity. This fall Congress will reauthorize funding for key local programs that support healthy children, schools and communities, including School Breakfast Programs, National School Lunch Programs, WIC Programs and Farm to School Programs. 2015 is a time to advocate for fresh, local, delicious #RealSchoolFood rather than pointing fingers and telling families “avoid school lunch like the plague.” This #RealSchoolFood lunch is from San Diego Unified School District, where they are serving lots of local and scratch-cooked meals thanks to a USDA Farm to School grant.


#8: Please eat a #RealSchoolFood lunch. Send a message with your location to SchoolMealsThatRock@gmail.com and I’ll recommend a #RealSchoolFood cafeteria nearby you can enjoy grab-and-go salad or a hot lunch like this Lemon Chicken from Riverside Unified School District.


#9: Please consider the consequences of your criticisms. Be respectful and ditch blanket descriptions of school food like “hideous piles of indistinguishable vegetables.” When you use negative and judgmental language, it makes parents feel badly about letting their children eat at school, even if they can’t afford to pack meals from home. Dedicated school nutrition heroes deserve your respect and thanks for all their training and hard work to feed kids #RealSchoolFood every day. This is why they do it – smiling face of hungry students, like this girl in Oakland Unified School District.


#10: Please be transparent about the companies who sponsor your post or blog or program. If your blog ends with photos of branded food products and lunch boxes, please indicate if they are sponsors or advertisers. I do consulting work for a variety of agricultural groups and a few companies, which are all disclosed below. Not a single one of them supported this post or provided input in any way.

 Board Member/Advisory Panel

  • American Association of School Administrators (AASA) Breakfast Council
  • Kellogg’s Breakfast Council


  • US Department of Agriculture and Team Nutrition Program
  • Multiple state departments of education and agriculture
  • California Walnut Commission
  • The Mushroom Council
  • Cherry Marketing Institute
  • American Egg Board
  • CLIF bar
  • Chobani Yogurt
  • Bush Beans

 Speaker’s Bureau

  • National Dairy Council and state/regional dairy councils
  • National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and state beef councils

This piece first appeared in School Meals That Rock

Filed under: Soda Tax/Food Politics

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