Op-Ed Asks Affluent Parents to Skip Packed Lunches, Buy School Meals: My Thoughts

A school meal in Austin ISD. Photo credit: NY Times

Yesterday, a number of you sent me a link to school food opinion piece that ran in the New York Times, privately asking me for my own take. I started to write my thoughts down in an email, but I decided to share them here on the blog as well.

The piece in question was written by Jennifer Gaddis, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of The Labor of Lunch. (My December Q&A with Gaddis here.) It’s called “Why Are You Still Packing Lunch for Your Kids?” and its main point is that 20 million school children, mostly from middle- and upper-class families, currently aren’t eating school meals—a lack participation that’s depriving the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) of needed revenue that could be directed toward further improving school food.

As Gaddis puts it, “the progress K-12 schools have made toward serving healthier and more appetizing lunches may stall unless more middle- and upper-middle-class parents can be persuaded to let their kids buy lunch at school. Without greater participation from children paying for lunch, local school districts will lack the funds to maintain the gains in quality.”

Gaddis’s piece is well argued and well written, and I don’t disagree at all with her main points: school meal nutrition standards have significantly improved in recent years (despite recent Trump administration rollbacks), and school meal programs would undeniably benefit from greater participation.

But here’s my only concern: improved nutrition standards don’t always translate into improved food quality—especially if that quality is being assessed by the sort of health-conscious, affluent parent who (as the Times‘s subhead puts it) is dedicated to “creating Instagram-friendly school lunches.”

Gaddis’s piece is accompanied by gorgeous photos of the scratch-cooked,”real food” school meals currently served in the Austin Independent School District. And if all school meals looked like those, getting  affluent parents to stow their bento boxes wouldn’t be a very hard sell.

But AISD is headed up by Anneliese Tanner, a particularly progressive school nutrition director (and one of my interviewees in Kid Food) who is nationally renowned for her efforts. In too many other districts (for reasons I discuss in detail in Chapter 5 of Kid Food), children continue to be served a considerable amount of pre-packaged, highly processed food that’s a far cry from Tanner’s meals. Here’s a representative Times reader comment along those lines: “The author of this article makes a great point, IF all schools served food like the meals pictured. But, they do not. I am a retired teacher, and I can tell you, as recently as last year, the quality of school food I saw didn’t even come close to being healthy and varied.”

I want to be clear: I wholeheartedly support Gaddis’s goal, which is to get all American parents engaged in supporting the NSLP, instead of some viewing it as a “poor kids’ program” that has nothing to do with them. In fact, one of my first posts here on TLT, way back in 2010, similarly urged parents to consider a school meal “buy-cott” (the opposite of a boycott) to help boost revenue and improve school food.

But I am, at heart, a realist. And I just don’t know how realistic it is to expect the parent who currently packs lunches like these to voluntarily have his child instead eat a highly processed school meal (if that’s the norm in his district), entirely out of a sense of obligation or civic duty. And if his child’s meal program is one of the thousands that have been outsourced to for-profit management companies, like Aramark, can he be assured that his extra revenue really will improve food quality—or will it just line corporate coffers?

Gaddis is right, however, when she notes that many parents today are walking around with an outdated view of school food. So I encourage every parent to visit his or her child’s cafeteria, hoping that you’ll be pleasantly surprised and more willing to opt into the program, just as Gaddis suggests. But if you’re turned off by what you see and intend to keep on packing lunches for your child, please don’t let the matter rest there. Please also:

  • Talk to your school nutrition director about how you and your fellow parents can support his or her efforts to improve school meals.
  • Take a stand against on-campus junk food fundraising, a practice that drains school meal participation and encourages school nutrition directors to “compete” with these unhealthy lunches, in a troubling race-to-the-bottom.
  • Ask your elected officials and candidates about their support for increased school meal funding and strong school nutrition standards.
  • And most of all, support any and all efforts to make school meals universal—i.e., offered to all children, free of charge. Because if school meals become a free and integral part of the school day, just like gym class and bus transportation, participation will naturally increase across all socioeconomic levels, food quality will certainly improve, and you can bet that many parents currently packing a lunch will gladly forgo that daily task.

What do you think about all this? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below or on social media.

And now for a few more school food items . . .

Model Comments Opposing School Nutrition Rollbacks

In the coming weeks, a number of advocacy organizations will likely be circulating model comments that can be submitted to the Trump administration in opposition to its recently proposed second round of school food rollbacks.

Here’s the first set I’ve seen so far, created by Salud America!, an organization funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to improve the health of Latino children. The comments are drafted with a focus on Latino families, but of course can be tweaked to reflect any parent’s concerns.

Reminder: Whether you rely on model language or use your own words, comments on the rule should be submitted here, no later than March 23rd.

A Petition to Sign 

In addition to commenting on the proposed rule, you can also add your signature to this petition from Real Food For Kids.

You Can Ask Your District to Stay the Course

Finally, don’t forget that these proposed school nutrition rollbacks, even if finalized, are entirely voluntary. You can and should ask your district to stay the course—that is, continue to adhere to the stronger, original Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act standards.



  • “A blueprint for how to raise healthy eaters in a fast-food culture”—New York Times
  • “One of the Best Books of 2019 (So Far)” — Real Simple 
  • “Everyone who has children should read Kid Food. And everyone who doesn’t should read it, too.” — Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation.  

Look for my new book, Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World. For more information, visit bettinasiegel.com

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