If I asked you what you had for lunch, you could probably tell me without hesitation. If I asked what your child had for lunch at school, could you answer just as easily? Even if you know the lunch menu, what’s actually in the school lunches may be a mystery. A look at one school’s burger found it had 26 ingredients. Among those 26 components, it contained disodium inosinate, a flavor additive that can spike heart rate, and caramel color, which contains sulfites and ammonia. Labdoor Magazine explains “processing carbohydrates with ammonia under high temperatures can produce a toxic byproduct, 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI), which has been linked to convulsions and an increased incidence of cancer in animal testing.” These types of chemical compounds, and many others, are prevalent in the processed foods served at schools, as well as in these processed foods to avoid feeding your children.
The topic of school lunches is, without a doubt, a hot-button issue for a number of reasons. It has become a political issue as of late, an ongoing issue of cost for public schools, but, most importantly, it is an issue which directly involves the well-being of our children. This article isn’t to debate the free lunch program that provides meals to children who would otherwise have none. I think we are all in agreement that children should not go hungry. This is article is an in-depth look at the ingredients and chemicals in school lunches and their effects on our children.
In 2010, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act set out to better the health standards of food served in schools. Although it is an improvement, the system still has flaws. American school lunches haven’t caught up to their European counterparts. France banned vending machines in schools in 2004. The European Union has also banned a number of chemicals in food which are still permitted for consumption in the US. These chemical ingredients were banned for their dangerous effects. For example, azodicarbonamide is banned in the UK, Europe, and Australia. Why? It can cause worsened allergy symptoms and can cause asthma if inhaled.
Even if actual fast food isn’t allowed in schools, that doesn’t mean the fast food companies aren’t infiltrating school grounds. Even Mamavation’s own founder discovered her son’s school was giving the students a coupon for a free McDonald’s breakfast. It’s a common practice. So common that companies spent $150 million marketing foods and beverages in elementary, middle, and high schools, according to stats from 2009.This predatory marketing has been shown to impact the choices children make when selecting food at school.
Here are 10 reasons you should avoid school lunches like the plague and opt for a wholesome packed lunch instead:
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Table of Contents
1. Mystery Meat
You would expect the food that your growing child is served at school to surpass fast food standards, right? Well it turns out the meat supplied to some schools would be turned down at fast food chains. The National Education Association points out “fast-food chains test their meat five to ten times more often than the USDA for bacteria and would reject meat that the USDA deems safe for consumption”. Speaking of rejected meat, a ground beef supplier had a salmonella outbreak and retailers recalled the meat. However, the schools were still shipped the ground beef produced at the facility during the time of the outbreak.
The ingredient lists and nutritional information for food served in school lunches can also be a mystery. The Better Government Association had to submit a request under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the nutrition for the Chicago Public School’s chicken patty and other menu items. The chicken sandwich turned out to have dozens of ingredients including MSG, azodicarbonamide, and silicon dioxide (sand), among other things. MSG has been shown to cause allergic reactions, upset stomach, muscle tightness and fatigue.
When you buy meat for a packed lunch, you control what you buy and its quality. Choosing organic meats will ensure ensure your child isn’t being fed meat from animals given antibiotics, hormones, or GMO feed. Organic meats will also not contain chemical nitrates or nitrites, which are associated with increased risk for cancer.
2. GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)
Schools aren’t just full of the ABCs. Toxic GMOs are everywhere when it comes to school lunches. The carton of low-fat milk is from cows fed GMO feed. The à la carte french fries are fried in GMO oil and the potatoes themselves could be GMO by next year. The “healthy” scoop of corn on the plate is the only food registered as a pesticide by the EPA. Most GM corn is modified to kill pests and does so by bursting the stomachs of bugs who feed on the corn, called Bt corn. Although humans are built differently to insects, this particular type of corn is likely to affect our bodies as well. The Bt toxin has been found in human blood, suggesting that it is disrupting the bacteria in our digestive system and bodies. Bacteria is essential to our well being, and actually outnumbers the number of human cells in our body. The human microbiome project is just now discovering the DNA of our bacteria and to what degree a disruption in the bacteria affects our bodies.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Round Up which is used on many GMO crops, has been linked to some scary side effects. In a 2009 article published by Toxicology, evidence suggested herbicides, like glyphosate, act as endocrine disruptors in human cells. Some endocrine disrupters can alter the functions of the hormonal system are linked to numerous types of cancer. Endocrine disrupting substances are not what we want to feed our children, whose bodies and are still developing and whose hormones are vital in said development.
As a parent, you can ensure your children are not eating GMOs by packing a lunch with foods that are Non-GMO project verified or USDA certified organic.
3. Conventional Food Has Pesticide Residue
School lunches are made with conventional food, meaning no certified organic ingredients are used. Even seemingly healthier fruits and vegetables served up are cause for concern. Foods that are not organic are sprayed with persistent pesticides, which, as we pointed above, are endocrine disruptors. New studies also link endocrine disruptors in our environment to at least 5% of autism cases in Europe. One author of the study, professor Philippe Grandjean of Harvard University, calls for pregnant women and children to eat organic fruits and vegetables among other recommendations. This is due to the risks associated with phthalates found in pesticides and plastic containers. Exposure in utero can decrease a child’s IQ by as much as 6 points, which can be the difference between college or no college. Phthalates can also lead to adult obesity and is linked to asthma. If a toxin is deemed harmful to pregnant women, it is harmful enough for me to avoid exposing my family to it.
Although Non-GMO project verified foods are free from GMOs, they can still contain persistent pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics. Conventional dairy cows are often treated with hormones to boost milk productions. In addition, any meat that isn’t organic is also likely to be from animals injected with antibiotics. Livestock has been shown to gain more weight when frequently injected with antibiotics, and that produces more meat. It’s been common practice since the 1940s. This is problematic for humans to consume because the animals are treated with antibiotics. It can cause antibiotic resistant bacteria and actually make us less safe. In fact, the CDC reports that 23,000 people die each year from bacterial infections that are resistant to antibiotics.
By opting for certified organic food in your kids’ lunch, rather than going with school lunches, you ensure you are not feeding them GMOs, pesticides, animal products tainted with hormones or antibiotics, or artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives which can lead to allergic reactions and hyperactivity.
4. Feeling Unfulfilled
With the attempts to make school lunches healthier, federal guidelines have forced schools to limit calories, fat, and other nutritional aspects in the meals they serve. First Lady Michelle Obama has been advocating for healthier options in schools, whole grains, and more fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, in some cases, this has simply resulted in small and unsatisfying meals to stay with in caloric restrictions. Teens have taken to social media to showcase their lunches which leave a lot to be desired.
— mariah k (@gummibear2530) March 3, 2015
I know from experience that a hungry child is not a happy child. Hunger can lead to an inability to focus as well as behavioral outbursts. Researchers studying ghrelin, a hormone produced on an empty stomach, were surprised to find it binds to the cells in the brain related to learning, memory, and spacial analysis. Parents know their kids better than anyone, so they are better suited at providing lunches that will satisfy their child’s appetite. With a reusable lunch container, you can pack a lunch and snacks for your children to give them the energy needed throughout their day. In addition, any uneaten food can easily be carted home in the same container.
5. Wasted Food and Wasted Dollars
The idea that school lunches are unappetizing has been around for as long as I can remember. Stories of slop on a plate and bland food are abundant. When children are served food that doesn’t taste good, they won’t eat it. One study estimates $1.2 billion dollars of food goes to waste at schools in the Unites States each year. That’s a lot of waste, which is costly to the schools and the environment. The federal government reimburses schools for lunches depending on the income level of the student’s family. On average, the school can budget $1 per child, per meal. It’s tough to make a meal for such little cost, and it can be a struggle for schools to stick to such a strict budget. The schools gets more money back in federal reimbursement on lower income or free meals than for meals purchased at full price. If you can afford to pack your child’s lunch, it’s worth having control over what goes into it. You can pack foods you know your child enjoys. When packing a lunch, send the food in an insulated lunch box. Your child can bring home any uneaten food to consume later.
6. Packaging Waste and Phthalates
It’s not just food that’s being wasted, but also packaging. Despite school lunches being prepared in the school cafeteria, many are in individualized containers. Fruit cups, milk cartons, packaged sandwiches, salads, and more all contribute to the waste. This packaging waste fills our landfills at rapid rates. In 2012, the United States accumulated 251 million tons of trash alone. That packaging is causing damage to our earth, but also our bodies. According to the America Chemistry Council, phthalates are the most researched family of chemicals in use today. New research points out why these compounds are garnering up so much interest. Phthalates are linked to asthma, adult obesity, lowered IQ, and serious endocrine effects. It’s such an immense problem, that phthalates are costing $175 billion in healthcare costs in Europe. When you pack a lunch, you control the waste. By sending whole fruits instead of fruit cups or applesauce, there is little to no waste. A bento box will allow for separate food to be packaged all in one container. Beverages can be sent in a thermos. Check out some of our favorite reusable lunch products at the end of this post as well. Going a step further, buying in bulk will eliminate even more packaging. You can also use ecologically sound packaging. Thrive Market sells landfill safe natural waxed paper sandwich bags that will not contaminate ground water. They also offer compostable snack bags that are bleach and allergen free. That brings us to our next item, food allergies.
7. Food Allergies
Food allergies among children are increasing at an alarming rate. According to FoodAllergy.org, they affect 1 in every 13 children. Although many schools have adopted peanut-free policies, allergies are still a real concern. Milk, soy, nuts, eggs, and gluten are common allergens that can be found foods you wouldn’t likely suspect. Children could mistakenly consume something they are allergic to resulting in a severe allergic reaction or even death. You can assure home prepared meals are allergen free because you are monitoring the ingredients and the preparation for contamination.
Despite federal regulations for healthier lunch menus, many kids are still not eating healthy at school. Lunch money is, instead, being spent in vending machines on sweets and snacks. Even the “healthy” vending machines contain pop-tarts, which made our list of 10 processed foods to never feed your kids. Lunch counters still serve up sugary chocolate milk and fried foods. Jamie Oliver discovered that even servings of vegetables at schools are questionable. Ketchup is counted as a vegetable serving, despite being loaded up with high fructose corn syrup. This is truly the biggest benefit of a packed lunch as opposed to school lunches: nutrition. You can select a balanced meal with real fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and protein for your child. Healthy eating habits can be taught early on to raise healthy adult eaters. Remember that leading by example is the most effective way to make a change in how our children eat. You can do this by eating the same healthy meals that you pack for your children for lunch at home. If you’re looking for some easy to pack options that are a healthier choice, there are some excellent choices at the end of this post.
Artificial colors and flavors are in many of the school lunches and other foods served at U.S. schools. From the pop-tarts to the chicken sandwich there are numerous artificial ingredients. The side effects from consuming these ingredients can include allergic reactions as well as behavioral issues. Children can experience worsened ADD and ADHD symptoms which can directly affect the ability to focus and learn at school. Excess sugar consumed can also lead to behavioral issues as well as a sugar crash later. Although there are restrictions on fat and calories in school lunches, there are no rules on sugar. Opt for food in your child’s lunch without artificial colors and flavors. USDA organic foods cannot contain these ingredients. In addition, avoid excessively sweet beverages or snacks. Fresh fruit is a great alternative to sweets and it’s easy to pack.
10. Brain Drain
In addition to preventing our children from being able to focus, the unhealthy foods served at schools are a contributing factor to childhood obesity. Ironically, obesity and being overweight has been linked to poor academic performance. In a 2009 study by The Journal of School Health, the overweight and obese were found to have lowered IQs, reduced attention span, impaired memory retention and increased clumsiness. The chemical compounds phthalates, found in conventional fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat, and their packaging or plastic cutlery, are also linked to a lower IQ. You can provide a packed lunch for your child that models healthy eating habits. Foods like bananas, yogurt, and cheese can provide the protein and energy necessary to help your child get through the school day. Organic fruits and vegetables are also perfect portable foods to add to the lunch bag.
Send Your Kids To School Packing (A Lunch)
If you aren’t already convinced that those beige trays filled with even more beige food are a bad idea, how about these benefits of a sack lunch?
I’ve already discussed how unappealing food ends up as uneaten food. In contrast, food that looks appetizing and fun to eat is more likely to be eaten. We’ve all seen those cute bento boxes all over Pinterest. Yes, some can be highly elaborate and probably took hours to make. But you can still get creative with your child’s lunch box even if you aren’t a master of food arts. Simply using a decorative toothpick or colorful container can make a lunch look more exciting. Using a cookie cutter is an easy and quick way to liven up sandwiches, cheese, and fruit. Even adding in a dipping sauce can make meal time more of an adventure. Hummus is a great dip for crisp veggies and yogurt makes an excellent fruit dip. Getting creative can also help you introduce a new food in a different way. Kids love to play, and their food is no exception.
If you’re running low on inspiration for creative meals, 100 Days of Real Food has dozens of clever lunch ideas anyone can pull off. You can discover some beautiful bento box ideas from Following in My Shoes, including some stress free versions.
It may seem like more work to pack a healthy lunch for your child each day, but you don’t have to go it alone. In fact, kids are more likely to eat food they helped to prepare. Children who help cook are also more likely to be healthy eaters as adults. The benefits to cooking with kids doesn’t end there. Having their helping hands in the kitchen raises self esteem, provides family bonding time, teaches a much needed life skill, and can help making concepts like math easier to understand.
This may be an underrated benefit of sending your child off to school with a packed lunch, but it deserves it’s place on the list. It can be the little laugh they needed on a tough day. It could be a reassuring note that they’ll do great on their quiz. It can even be a great way to remind them of important information, like soccer practice after school or to bring gym clothes home to wash. Lunch notes are great for any age child, even those that can’t read yet. It’s a little reminder to your kids that you care and are thinking of them, even when you can’t be there.
Alternatives for a Packed Lunch
These reusable lunch boxes and quick, but healthier, snacks are some of our favorite packed lunch options.
Foods are available at ThriveMarket.com for notable savings off store prices.
These organic options offer convenience and are a vast improvement over the highly processed conventional lunch items or school lunch foods.
For more information about safer food for children, pick up a copy of Green Enough: Eat Better, Live Cleaner, Be Happier (All Without Driving Your Family Crazy!) by Leah Segedie. With product investigations, a step-by-step pantry purge, and lots of love she will guide you through the kitchen, bathrooms, and the rest of the house ensuring your family is safe.