Everyone can appreciate sitting down for a lunchtime meal, but it’s not always that enjoyable of an experience for American kids. Whether it’s what they’re eating, how long they have to eat, or whether they’re even eating anything at all, it seems to be an ongoing issue in our school systems. 

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Haven’t been in a school cafeteria in a while? Don’t worry—we’ll give you the lowdown on the battleground that is school lunches, and how some schools are managing to make them even worse than they already are.

First, the basics.

The state of school lunches has been a hot topic for quite some time now, and for a lot of different reasons. As of 2017, it’s estimated that approximately 40 percent of all students in the United States—that’s about 20 million kids, by the way—receive free lunches because they can’t afford to pay for one. In 2000, that number was a comparably meek 13 million students.

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It’s not just that they can’t afford it, either. The School Nutrition Association reports that around 76 percent of the school districts in America have children who not only can’t buy their daily lunch but who also have school lunch debt. When this is the case, students in many districts forgo a hot lunch and are given a lackluster cheese sandwich in its place.

Speaking of cheese sandwiches…

Can’t afford even the most processed of lunches? Some students don’t even get that free cheese sandwich. At one school in Gardendale, Alabama, a student was actually publicly shamed in front of other students for not being able to afford lunch. The words “I Need Lunch Money” were stamped onto the child’s arm—with a smiley face added for good measure because apparently, the stamp wasn’t already harsh enough.

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It has also been reported that students in Utah and Pennsylvania schools not only get their lunch taken away from them if they can’t pay, but the schools actually dump the food into the trash instead of serving it to someone else. It’s hard to think of something more insulting.

Thankfully, some schools are working to end the cycle of “lunch shaming.” 

The quality of the food served to American children during their lunch is another giant issue of its own. It’s estimated that children take in approximately half of their calories for the day while they’re at school, and what they tend to take in often includes a significant amount of salt, sugar, and even trans fats, with very few fruits and vegetables. The produce they do consume usually comes from a can, or comes in the form of French fries or tater tots—in fact, a 2008 study from the Institute of Medicine found that one-third of all of the vegetables kids ate during school lunch were potatoes.

Food manufacturers actually profit off of making processed foods.

Through the National School Lunch Program, schools can receive food from the country’s agricultural surplus that they can use to feed their kids. While this sounds like a dream—fresh, unprocessed foods on the cheap that are given to hungry children—what schools end up doing with that fresh food is paying companies like Sodexo and Aramark to process it into the French fries and chicken nuggets served to kids across the country.

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Schools believe they can ultimately keep costs down when the lunch lady’s job is to dump something out of a bag and toss it into the oven, as opposed to cooking from scratch. But that’s not actually true.

The costs and additional fees related to food processing add up and usually total over three times the value of the food itself. Our students pay for it, and well—studies have actually found a link between worsening test scores and eating junk food.

Fresh or not, though, it’s still hard for schools to save.

When it comes down to it, the National School Lunch Program has never been properly utilized or funded, even at the program’s peak. Barack Obama once proposed a $10 million increase in funding for the program, an idea which was shot down by Congress in favor of an increase around half that, which gave schools only six cents more per student, per meal.

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Schools in some cities, such as San Francisco, were left with just $2.74 for each student, which won’t even get you a full meal at a fast-food restaurant. To make ends meet, schools have been forced into serving kids the least expensive options available to them—chicken nuggets, canned fruit cocktail, French fries—which also happen to be the unhealthiest.

Don’t think healthy food saved schools either, though. Plenty of people were thrilled when Michelle Obama decided to roll out the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which aimed to make school lunches healthier in America. Alas, most of the act’s supporters weren’t the kids eating the food.

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Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The changes in the act were more expensive than their cheaper counterparts to begin with, but an estimated 70 percent of American schools took a hit financially because students didn’t want to buy the food they had spent all that money on. The public school system in Detroit actually lost a whopping million dollars the year after the regulations were put into place.

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It also doesn’t help when you consider that the government requires kids from families under a certain income level to be given free meals but doesn’t actually reimburse the schools for doing so. That money has to come from somewhere, and it’s usually out of the pockets of teachers.

Rethinking what kids are served doesn’t help either.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced in 2017 that the Trump administration would roll back the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act because kids just weren’t eating what was being served to them under the act’s regulations. Like we said, whole grains, less sodium, and more fruits and vegetables sounds great, but it doesn’t do a child any good if they won’t eat it because they think it’s disgusting and there’s a stand selling Flamin’ Hot Cheetos five feet away from their lunch table.

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It seems as though most people in the States haven’t wondered whether it’s the quantity of food we serve to children that’s making them unhealthy. Though much has been made of other countries’ school lunches, some of which is entirely inaccurate, it’s not unheard of for those students to be presented with better options. When you look at some of the food served during lunch in some schools across the world, you’ll notice that it’s not exactly what we’d consider health food. 

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In France, a student might be given a slice of steak served with veggies and a wedge of full-fat Brie cheese; an Italian student may receive a piece of fish with a side of pasta and Caprese salad. Food quality is take so seriously in France that schools even take the time to teach children how to develop their palates at an early age. Yes, they do get fattier foods, but they also get less of them. Plus, these students often get more time to eat so they can actually enjoy their food and digest it.

Time is another huge issue in American schools.

On average, American schools give their kids around 20 minutes to eat lunch. Sure, that’s not necessarily a short time, but when you factor in getting to the cafeteria and waiting in line, then how much time do they have left to eat? A 2015 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that kids eat around 12 percent less of their vegetables and 13 percent less of their main entree when they’re given less than 20 minutes to eat.

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Many schools cut their lunch times down even further when the time for standardized testing rolls around, which can actually lead to lower test scores in the end anyway (if only standardized testing actually did students any good in the first place). Teaching students these habits at a young age can set the stage for them for years to come—eating more quickly as a child can actually lead to several health problems down the road, including weight gain, heartburn, and digestive issues.

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So, what’s the solution? When you think about it, it’s essentially a situation that no one wins as it stands now—kids either eat crappy food or continue to turn down healthy food, and schools somehow end up losing money either way. Until we figure it out, there’s always the option of brown-bagging it, but that’s a whole different issue for another time.