Building a Better Lunch

The struggle to feed students well


A mother’s conundrum: Cupcakes or no cupcakes for my youngest son’s kindergarten class on his birthday later this month? With his older brothers, this was never a question. Discussion about what flavor, sure, but no debate about the cupcakes themselves. But this year, I wonder whether we ought to try to establish a new tradition in order to contribute to a healthier school food environment. We can put a candle in a slice of watermelon, right? Watermelon is Henry’s favorite fruit, so it might just go over well.

How do we learn about food and nutrition? How do we form our expectations and understanding about what we should eat? Research points to the importance of establishing a healthy, well-balanced food environment. If children encounter fruit and vegetables – or chips and sweets – at most meals, their expectations will develop accordingly. While home is the most powerful source of information about food and nutrition, school also provides a food environment. Most children in the Providence Public School District (PPSD) are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (breakfast is free to all without regard to economic status). Motivated mainly by necessity and sometimes choice, they eat those meals.

In 2009-2010, the most recent school year for which data is available, 86 percent of PPSD students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. At East Side public schools, 83 percent of Hope High School students, 69 percent of Nathan Bishop Middle School students, 73 percent of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School students, and 53 percent of Vartan Gregorian Elementary School at Fox Point students were eligible. Most children at the public schools in our neighborhood (and citywide) depend on food available at school for much of what they eat.

Of course, breakfast, lunch and snacks provided through federally funded school nutrition programs are not the only source of food at school. There are plenty of birthday treats to go around, along with sales of ice cream at some schools, vending machines at others and so on. However, school breakfasts and lunches are most likely to have a major impact on students’ wellness in short and long-term ways.

Anyone with a passing interest in the topic of children’s nutrition knows that the increase in childhood obesity is one of our most significant wellness issues, yet research demonstrates a conflict over whether school food contributes to childhood obesity. Nevertheless, the assumption that school food is a significant factor in childhood obesity was a major impetus behind the federal government’s recent overhaul of school food regulations for the first time in over 15 years. Released in January, the “Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs” require more varied fruits and vegetables at every meal, whole grains, adequate healthy protein and serving sizes that correspond to the age of the eaters. The new standards establish the former minimum calorie requirement as the new maximum, demonstrating a shift from concerns about hunger to obesity, and require that menu choices be “food based” rather than “nutrient based,” which means that unhealthy, nutrient-fortified food cannot stand in for healthier choices that provide adequate nutrition in their own right. Nutrient-fortified, high-fructose corn syrup laden cereal bar: your days are numbered.

Kids are likely to see – and, we hope, eat – more fruits and vegetables, and be less nutritionally deficient. However, Congress has proposed an inadequate increase of just six additional cents per free meal to pay for these changes. We need to develop some creative solutions to meet both the new regulations and the real interests of young people.

One example of such creativity comes from our neighborhood. Hope United, a group of students at Hope High School committed to improving their school through advocacy and a focus on social justice, worked with Sodexo, Providence Public Schools’ food vendor, to identify ways to serve healthier food within current financial limitations. According to Aaron Regunberg, a Brown University senior who serves as a Hope United advisor, “It’s an issue that everyone has to deal with.” Working with Karin Weatherill, Wellness Committee Specialist at Kids First, an organization dedicated to creating a healthier food environment statewide, Hope United students surveyed their peers to gather data about lunch preferences. The data helped them to demonstrate to Sodexo that students would eat more fruit and vegetables. Sodexo’s staff collaborated with the students to make cost-neutral changes that resulted in a daily salad bar and less frequent offerings of nachos and other appealing but less healthy food. It’s a great example of what’s possible when committed students and adult professionals understand each others’ needs and collaborate to find solutions.

In that spirit, I asked Henry which food he’d like to celebrate his sixth birthday at school. His proposal: cupcakes and watermelon. Well played, kid. Well played.

Jill Davidson can be reached at or her blog,