Monday, October 1, 2012

The 850 calorie school lunch: I do the math

Flickr: USDA Gov
I recently read an article on NPR about changes in the school lunch program. Sometimes numbers tell a story better than words, and one number resonated in my mind: 850.  The caloric maximum for a school lunch is now 850, which is actually higher than the average of 790 several years ago.

My first reaction (and the reaction of most of my friends) was 'whoa, that's a lot of food.'

However, the responses to a similar article on the school lunch issue by ABC news were far different. Much to my surprise, the outrage on the website was that the calories in school lunches were too FEW. You can read all of them on the website, but two responses stood out:

"...How has this reduced calorie and fat lunch affected a students ability to think and reason during classroom hours? The brain is basically a machine that requires fuel to operate at peak performance much like a car. Starve an engine of fuel or oxygen and it will run poorly."


"...To some children this is the ONLY meal they will get in a day…The caloric count should be raised to no less than 1000 per student per day and the condiments should NOT be counted in that count."

Suddenly, it occurred to me: hey, I can actually calculate EXACTLY how many calories I ate at lunch at school.  I believe the 850 limit is for high school, but let's take that as a rough maximum guesstimate for all grades, since there is always going to be some variation in terms of how many calories foods contain.

My elementary school had no cafeteria. You could buy food four days a week by putting change in a little manila envelope, and giving it to your teacher in the morning.  Then, the school would buy lunch.  Monday, you had a selection of hot dogs with mustard or ketchup or plain.  Tuesday I think was nothing--you had to pack your own lunch.  Wednesday was 'sub' day, which I never partook in, but the selection was a 1/4 or 1/2 a small sub.  Thursday was a choice of a small McDonald's hamburger, cheeseburger, or 6-pack Chicken McNuggets (your choice of condiments). Friday, one or two slices of pizza.  There were Dixie cups of ice cream (one flavor, 1/2 chocolate and 1/2 vanilla) at the elementary school and ice cream sandwiches at the middle school available for .25.

So, a typical day...

Chicken McNuggets with mustard or bbq sauce (280 calories) OR a kid-sized hot dog with mustard on bun (around 150 calories) OR small slice of cheese pizza (275 calories)= Around 250-300 calories on average for 'the meal'

A cup of whole milk (146 calories) or a juice drink like Hi-C or Capri Sun (126):  Around150 Calories

Ice cream cup (146 calories) or sandwich (180 calories): Let's say around 150-200

Flickr: Link576
FYI: I wasn't fat as an elementary school kid, merely high normal, although I was overweight (from slightly to borderline obese) from ages 9-17. I have been comfortably underweight ever since I lost weight beginning the summer of before my freshman year of high school.

But basically, the new guidelines don't seem so crazy now. In fact, since some teachers allowed a 'snack time' around 10 or so in the morning, which usually consisted of a piece of fruit brought from home (like (the skin off) an apple or a peach, or a chocolate chip chewy granola bar or a Nature Valley peanut butter crunch bar), I'd say that my calorie allotment for the day at school was around the 700-800 calorie mark.

Throw in around 200-300 calories for breakfast, usually a Pop Tart or a bowl of sugary cereal with whole milk and the minimal amount I was able to consume at dinner and get away with it, I probably did eat what was normal for a relatively small, inactive kid my age.  And bear in mind I wasn't overweight--yet.

How did I get fat as a kid?  Well, my parents always ate out a lot, and let's say I never ate the broiled fish or steak my mom consumed to keep her weight in check.  I started to eat more and more of the fried goodies I would order rather than pick at my food.  And I started to come home and hit the refrigerator.  I'd eat whatever desserts were in the house early in the week, but when I polished them off  and market day was still far away, then I'd eat peanut butter and cinnamon raisin bread (or butter, cream cheese, jam honey)...cereal, and so forth...My parents were older when they had me, and their philosophy was more 'stay safe and stay inside.' They nagged me to give up sweets, but never encouraged me to get outside and play.  In fact, my mother hated it when I rode my bike a very short distance to school, for fear of what might happen.

As I grew older, my lunches became more varied. Sometimes I'd skip lunch or just bring a piece of fruit to 'save calories' for later (and we all know what that results in late at night in front of the television).  Sometimes I'd have the hot dog, burger, or whatever.

Flickr: Mike Licht

In high school, I finally attended a school with a cafeteria. I never got 'the lunch.' In fact, I looked with horror upon the kids who got 'the lunch,' which invariably consisted of some mystery protein, canned peas or applesauce, milk, a questionable TV dinner-like dessert, and perhaps a starch. Like spaghetti and meatballs, broccoli in butter, a white dinner roll and whole milk.

I usually got a slice of square pizza (probably around 350 calories or so, based upon the size of similar TV microwave pizzas) or a mysteriously soft bagel with low-fat cream cheese (around 300-400 calories). Often, I'd buckle and get dessert, too, like some fat-free Hostess cupcakes.  My favorite meal at school was breakfast.  The Canadian bacon, cheese, and biscuit sandwiches held under the heat lamps were pretty tasty.  So were the chocolate chocolate chip and cheese strudel muffins.  But calorically, nothing I ate was over 300 or 400 calories.

It wasn't what I was eating in school but after school that caused me to put on weight--the emotional eating I was doing after school, and the fact that I had no physical outlet for my energies.

Of course, the poor quality of my diet did have consequences.  I literally have no memory of calculus my senior year (it was before lunch, when I was in a brain fog, for want of food). And geometry my junior year occurred after lunch, when I was ready to fall asleep after my carbohydrate and sugar-laced meal. 

I realize that my experiences are pretty typical of white, middle-class kids--poorer kids likely get a larger percentage of their calories from school. But even so, because it's so easy and cheap to buy junk food (I'm not saying there isn't cheap healthy food out there, I'm saying junk food is cheap and easy to prepare and buy when you're pressed for time and working two jobs to stay afloat), I'm sure what kids eat at home has a significant impact on their weight.

So what is my point?

Changing school lunches won't necessarily make a huge impression on the obesity numbers right away. There are still plenty of other opportunities to indulge in other areas of a kid's life.  I am not saying change isn't necessary at all, but the change isn't going to be noticeable necessarily even with this current generation of kids.

I think the calorie numbers aren't as crazy as they seem.  However, I should note that when I ate that many calories in the day as an elementary school student I had many advantages kids today don't.  I had at least a half hour to eat lunch.  I had recess and PE. My portions and choices were controlled, even of junk food, so it wasn't like a junk food playground every day. My calories were also spaced out through the day.

Calories shouldn't matter so much as the quality of the food.  Why not place more stringent limits on the sugar in food? You can still have pizza, just take the sugar out of the sauce (my elementary school pizza, in contrast to my high school cafeteria pizza was brought in from a local pizza 'joint,' which also helped the community).  Why not make smaller buns for burgers as well as make them whole wheat?  How 'bout fresh fruit that is really fresh for dessert?  Apples and oranges keep forever. Even for kids who are skinny rails, blood sugar crashes aren't conducive to learning.

Encourage kids to bring good food from home, if they can afford to do so.  Realistically speaking, no school lunch is going to please everyone. It's never going to be high in calories/low in calories/low in fat/ low in sugar/vegan/ high protein.  Parents don't always know how to pack a nutritious lunch.  Send home advice (not rules, advice) about what to pack.  Have refrigerators so kids can keep food palatable throughout the day, rather than storing lunches in their lockers.  Have a microwave so kids can heat food up. Of course, this won't help kids who are financially dependent on subsidized school lunches.

Gym.  It kills me to say this as the last kid picked at every gym class, but the one gym class I did where we ran 6 laps of the track every day actually did make an impression on me.  It taught me I could accomplish something: I could run.  Slowly, but I could run.  Now I run at least an hour, often more, a day.  I'm not a fast runner, but I enjoy it and it's definitely helped me get a healthy balance in my life.

As chronicled by Ms. Q in her blog Fed Up With Lunch, reform is coming very, very slowly, and there is always the question of how to feasibly pay for better-quality food.  Then again, the French manage to offer better food to their children within their system. They don't focus on calories but on teaching kids how to eat.  Check out this menu of the state French school system. Not a French fry on the menu and they even (gulp) served broiled fish and salad.

But I'm not sure all parents (many of whom love junk food) really in their hearts want their kids to be 'taught' in school to love ratatouille and, heaven forbid, arugula.

Sorry for the long rant--this post is MUCH longer than I intended it to be.  But I am curious--if you have the time to Google a calorie counter, is my experience that foreign?  How many calories on average did you eat for your school lunches?


  1. I always brought my lunches too. I'd have a turkey or pb sandwich, apple, fruit cup and maybe some chips. The school lunches always smelled like burned rubber.

  2. @The Blonde Duck: Oddly enough, I am rather nostalgic about the smell of school cafeterias. They remind me of a time when I had fewer responsibilities and when the world was full of possibilities, including the possibility of the perfect egg, bacon, and cheese biscuit sandwich.

  3. My grade school had no cafeteria either (it was the 70s and part of the district's misguided effort to retool the schools) so all of our lunches and those of the three or four other new schools were made at one of the city's high schools and trucked in every morning. The hot portion was in a foil tray (think tiny roasting pan) covered with foil and the cold portion in a plastic tray covered with plastic. You'd go through the line and they'd stack the hot tray on top of the cold tray and hand it to you and if you didn't immediately unstack them, the plastic wrap on the cold tray would melt.

    The food itself I remember as being very kid-friendly. Hamburgers, sloppy joes, pizza, polka dot mac and cheese, spaghetti, and fishsticks and tater tots on Fridays. I would estimate calories at about 250-300. The cold pack contained salad, which was just a few forkfuls of iceberg lettuce, or carrot or celery sticks, but probably no more than 10 calories total. If there was fruit, I'm thinking it was fruit cocktail, so maybe 50 calories. And if the hot portion didn't include bread, there would be a small dinner roll at around 80 calories. Milk was either plain (120) or chocolate (180). And dessert was not included; we could buy an ice cream sandwich or bar separately (150-200) but I don't think anyone did that every day.

    So without ice cream and assuming you eat the entire lunch, calories are 500-600. About 25% of the kids got reduced price lunches and there were a couple of kids who also got breakfast at the school. We also had P.E. every day and three recess periods.

    The point is well-taken that for some kids a school lunch is their main source of food, but I don't think the answer is to increase calories for every kid. A 1000-calorie minimum across the board is insanity, and dumping a lot of calories into the body at lunchtime is more likely to put a kid to sleep in in the afternoon than to fuel the brain. (The latter can be attested to by my high school English teacher, who had to deal daily with a roomful of snoring kids who'd taken advantage of the open campus rule to go to Taco Time or Burger King for lunch.) At the same time, I cannot get on board with the commenter on the ABC News story who says that if a kid needs more food they can bring an extra sandwich from home, but I admit I am basing this partly on the fact that she repeatedly spells it "sandwhich."

  4. Yikes at the length of that comment.

  5. @flurrious--no, don't apologize! That was very interesting, although I feel guilty that my school's policy of bringing in McDonald's and pizza was far more palatable than the hot tray-cold tray solution. Your setup sounds like something from the Jetsons! It's interesting how school menus have remained so inflexible over the decades, right down to the ice cream sandwiches.

    I think the calorie limits are reasonable, based upon my totally unscientific survey of my friends on Facebook and the comments--almost everyone estimates eating about 500-800 calories for lunch at school. And yes, those ABC comments were hilarious!

    I think it's the quality of the food--not reducing the calories (or increasing them) that needs to be addressed, specifically reducing sugar.

    Three recess periods! That sounds awesome!

  6. Now that I reconsider it, I think I was confusing recess periods with break times when I worked in an office. Because I was thinking we had a short morning and afternoon recess and then a longer one after lunch, but now I think I just imagined that. I'm pretty sure we only had the one half-hour recess after lunch. I don't remember for certain, but there was a period of time where I was being bullied by a sad yet mean girl, and I had to sneak into the library instead of going outside to be pummeled. I'm pretty sure I could only carry that off once a day.

  7. I did the 'library thing,' too. Barring that, I would occupy a swing since there is a limit how much people can hurt you when you're in the air. I also sometimes ate lunch with my favorite teacher in her classroom to hide from bullies.

    Although I have to say that there were breaks other than recess during the elementary school day when I remember having a snack, doing crafts, reading a book and it sounds like kids don't have that type of free time any more.

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