The Real Reason Students Hate School Lunches

In her piece, "Why Students Hate School Lunches," (NYT 9/27/15), reporter Kate Murphy wonders why kids are not more eager to consume the food they find on their lunch trays. The article explores a variety of reasons: lack of flavor, not enough time to eat, disconnect with foods found at home. These are, of course, valid explanations, but the primary driver for kids general disinterest in "healthier" cafeteria food seems obvious.

Imagine, for a moment, that a typical English class consisted of students watching a 20 minute cartoon, followed by playing a series of computer games based on the show. Occasionally, kids watch longer movies, prefaced with short spoken introductions by the teacher, but instructional time primarily entails interaction with a screen. Now, imagine, after years of watching videos, cartoons, playing games something changes - without any explanation or warning. Suddenly, English teachers walk into their classes and ask kids to open a textbook to a page titled "The Elements of Poetry." This new English class consists of reading passages citing rhyme, meter, metaphor, and other technical references.

What do you imagine the reaction might be? Enthusiasm? Curiosity? Joy? Probably not. Most kids would respond with confusion, antipathy, or downright resentment. What happened to the simple to digest, computer generated images? Where are the short, quick burst of visual stimulation and entertainment? Since when did English class require you to actually read and understand something? "But," teachers argue, "books are wonderful. They open up a world of possibility, adventure, and inspire creativity. You just need to give them a chance!”

When seen in this light, I'm not sure why we are confused when kids react badly to foods that, in their minds, seem completely at odds from what they have to come to believe constitutes eating. Raised on diet of high fat, high sodium, bathed in high fructose corn syrup, convenient and easy to digest junk foods, most kids think that healthy = boring, or worse, tasteless. Unfortunately, due to the budget and physical constraints that plague most large national school lunch programs, they are right. Without the money or facilities to provide scratch cooking, many of the healthy options currently offered are about as exciting as eating your 7th grade English textbook.

As adults we know that healthy food can be amazingly tasty, not to mention provide nutrients that are key to growing minds and bodies. But, if we are going to ask kids to completely change their eating habits, along with their understanding and appreciation of what healthy food can offer, we are going to have to do more than stick a few posters on the wall and a few pieces of fruit on their lunch trays.

As the cafeteria revolutionary Ann Cooper notes, we have to educate kids about healthy eating in way that not only makes sense but reflects the current reality of our challenging food environment. Moreover, that learning can't be relegated to the cafeteria. We need to provide kids with K-12 food literacy education that helps them to understand the complexity of the food system and gives them the knowledge to make healthier eating and buying decisions in and out of the cafeteria.

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