Past Event

Food Fight! Are School Lunches Setting Kids Up for Poor Nutrition?

Featuring special guests Kimberly Wasserman Nieto, Coordinator at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization; Jackson Potter, and Little Village Lawndale High-School students who were involved in the recent speak out against unhealthy school lunches.

This event is free and open to the public. Reservations are required and can be made online, by email at, or by calling 312.422.5580.

This event is presented by The Public Square, the Albany Park Theater Project, and Little Village Lawndale High School.

Read the full topic summary below:

In recent weeks, school lunches have gotten a lot of bad press and criticism. From Chicago public students confronting the school board over “sickening pizza, chicken sandwiches, and nachos” to newspaper editorial boards dissecting the meals’ poor nutritional value, school lunches are flunking health class.

A report released this week makes school lunches even more of a spoiler. A group of retired military officers are saying that “school lunches have helped make the potential recruits so fat that fewer of them can meet the military’s physical fitness standards, and recruitment is in jeopardy,” the Associated Press reported. Retired Navy Rear Adm. James Barnett Jr. said that national security in the year 2030 is “absolutely dependent” on reversing child obesity rates.

The report, “Too Fat to Fight,” says more than 9 million young adults, or 27 percent of all Americans 17 to 24, are too overweight to join the military. The officers, who met with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, are advocating for passage of a wide-ranging nutrition bill that eliminates junk food and high-calorie beverages and develop new strategies that help children develop healthier eating habits. The school lunch bill, part of the Child Nutrition Act that is currently awaiting a Senate vote, would spend $4.5 billion more over 10 years for nutrition programs.

In Chicago, some high schoolers have become so fed up with lunch options they’re blogging about bad school food, calling for schools to install vegetable gardens and urging the school board not to renew the contract for the company providing the food. The company, Chartwells-Thompson, has provided food service to the district for nearly a decade. Its $58 million annual contract is up this year.

For almost a year, Chicago Tribune food writer Monica Eng has written one scathing report after another on CPS food service. “Nachos, once an occasional indulgence at the ballpark or a festival, have become a staple entree in the Chicago Public Schools and other districts,” Eng wrote last June. “The dish is on the menu every day in the city’s high schools and regularly offered to younger students as well.” Last month, the CPS announced that it plans to end daily nacho service in high school and get rid of doughnuts and Pop-Tarts for breakfast “as part of a major nutritional overhaul of menus.” Eng is now asking students to submit photos of a typical school so taxpayers and congressmen can see what’s being served. The plan is to publish “the best” online and perhaps in print.

As Eng and other food and nutrition advocates, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, wage a nationwide crusade against childhood obesity, research presented by the Annual College of Cardiology determined that children who eat lunches served by schools are almost 60 percent more likely to be overweight or obese compared to children who bring their lunch from home. In addition, kids who ate school-provided lunches are more likely to eat fatty meals, drink sugary beverages, and eat fewer fruits and vegetables.

The National School Lunch Program was established in 1946 “as a measure of national security,” according to the bill’s original language. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. The federal government pays, on average, $2.68 per child per meal – and most food advocates say that simply isn’t enough, according to a USA Today reporter. A few insist it can’t be done for less than $5.

But not everyone blames school lunches as the number one cause of childhood obesity; many say that a variety of factors make kids unhealthy. They say lack of exercise and the elimination of gym programs are one cause. An anonymous commentator on the blog, responds to an posting on childhood obesity by saying, “Exercise in schools is being chipped away by federal laws: the requirements of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) are making time a precious commodity in the school day, as recess and gym are reduced or eliminated.”

Others point towards personal responsibility and parental care as the real solution to the problem of childhood obesity. They claim students aren’t forced to eat school lunches and parents should be taking a more active role supplying their children with healthy diets. David Harsanyi in Reason Magazine writes, “It seems, in fact, that in the fight against obesity, we pin the blame on every bugaboo available except the one that deserves the responsibility. Who knows, maybe it’s parents—not the Fruit Loops toucan or vending machines or corporate greed or even a lack of laws—who hook kids on insalubrious foods.”

How can parents and students fight back to ensure healthy school lunch options? What changes would we need to make to improve school foodservice? Is it fair to blame child obesity rates on school food? Why or why not? What role does nutrition education play in changing children’s eating habits? What do you think about the amount currently spent on each school meal? Should schools district grow some of they food they serve? How can menus be modified to meet better nutrition standards and still get kids to eat?

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For more information, call 312.422.5580.