Whether you love British Chef Jamie Oliver or just love to hate him, his sometimes exploitative TV show about fixing kids' eating habits in a small West Virginia town probably helped raise our awareness about the quality of school lunch food.
Parents want to get rid of the high-fat, high-salt items on this tray.
Parents want to get rid of the high-fat, high-salt items on this tray. iStockphoto.com
And a new survey from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation confirms that most Americans want what Jamie wants in the school lunch line — more fresh food and fewer high-fat, high-salt items like pizza, chicken nuggets and burgers.
How to make that happen, however, remains a challenge for schools, parents and the government.
In a survey of over 800 adults, the Kellogg Foundation folks found that 55 percent of people described the nutritional quality of local school food as "poor" or "only fair." Among parents of school-aged children, the number went up to 63 percent.
And more than 85 percent of those surveyed said fresh fruit and vegetables should be offered every day in school cafeterias. That's in line with recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences last year.
But translating desires into action requires buy-in on several levels.
As Oliver illustrated aptly in his show, getting the parents to buy into making healthier, and generally more expensive fresh food choices, was one challenge. Parents who pack potato chips and chocolate as a meal aren't doing kids any nutritional favors. A study in the Journal of American Dietetic Association published last year says more than 70 percent of packed lunches don't include enough fruits and vegetables.
And then there's the issue of whether kids will even eat better food if its offered.
Another challenge is overcoming the training and cost barriers involving school food handlers accustomed to heat and serve meals. And then there's the requirement that the school lunch program accept surplus government staples, like gigantic blocks of cheese.
The National School Lunch Program is trying to make strides to provide fresher foods, and with the First Lady tackling childhood obesity as a primary issue, it may be the moment.
New dietary guidelines are due out next month, and there's already a push underway to make changes to the school lunch program when Congress reauthorizes it later this year.