The cold lunch revolution: Better school lunches

brown bag lunchPublic school lunches have been the butt of jokes for generations. Upon closer inspection of the school cafeteria, however, we’re finding that mystery meat ain’t so funny anymore.

As the second largest nutritional assistance program in the nation, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) [.pdf] should come under scrutiny. It serves over 30 million kids a day. While the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 brought much-needed attention to school nutrition, it would be hard-pressed to spread that extra six cents per meal to achieve the ideals suggested by school lunch reformists like Jamie Oliver or the Renegade Lunch Lady.

Now I applaud any efforts to study our school cafeterias; to question the whereabouts of missing nutrients, food safety and wasted resources. I’m energized by Farm to School collaborations popping up across the nation, vending machines stocking healthier choices and Revolution Food.

Yet we seem to like taking on Goliath. We fantasize about large scale changes but get tangled in politics. We point fingers at schools for contributing to childhood obesity. We take on big business, reluctant administrators, and the poor, poor lunch lady.

Something is missing. Something you can do today.

The cold lunch.

Packing lunches does not make good reality television. It does not point fingers or loudly question the sodium levels of the pale brown gravy. It costs less than massive kitchen and menu overhauls. Inside the brown bag quietly lies the PB & J, the carrot sticks and a little bit of personal responsibility for improving a kid’s diet one lunch at a time.

If more of us participate, we can play a huge role in school lunch reform. A cold lunch revolution.

I’m not just talking about tips for creative lunches. I’m not just talking about making better choices at Whole Foods (or at Piggly Wiggly or your farmer’s market, for that matter) I’m talking about pouring the same passion (and air time) that Jamie Oliver and Ann Cooper have into helping others make their own lunch. To instruct all ages and income levels about the fiscal and nutritional benefits of packing lunches. Ideas for making your food dollar spread. Learn which foods to avoid.

We may not reach the hungry children who rely on school for their only meal. Realistically, if you live in a food desert or are homeless, you don’t have the resources to pack a well-balanced lunchbox. We originally created the NSLP to help those in such dire circumstances.

But a large chunk of school lunch consumers DO have that ability. They don’t HAVE to rely on the school to provide them with daily nourishment. Packing your lunch may not guarantee a healthy lunch, but it can become a great opportunity to educate yourself and your kids about food choices.

School lunch reform? Absolutely. But a little reorganization in our own kitchens also sends a message. It puts school lunch back into our hands.

Join me in the cold lunch crusade. Don’t think you have time to pack healthier lunches for your kids? Start with these 3 easy to make and healthy “grab and go” snacks. Check back here soon for tips on improving school lunch in your very own home.

[Photo: mconnors/morguefile]

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About Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson is a freelance writer with nearly 20 years of experience in community health education, non-profit program management and mental health counseling. Amy works on projects that promote greener, healthier living through pragmatic approaches. She is an avid fan of reality therapy, small town farmers markets and dishing out home cooking with unsolicited advice. You can also follow Amy’s adventures in realistic wellness.