Crafting a healthier lunch at Liberty

Do you think about what you’re eating for lunch each day? It may be hard for students not involved in DECA or the L Café to notice, but new changes are starting to effect on-campus lunch options for every student. The 2010 Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act, sponsored by First Lady Michelle Obama, it has been gradually implemented over the last three years, but now school lunch options at Liberty High School are starting to become affected. It is very important that lunch options at school are healthy, especially for students who don’t have access to these types of food at home. However, this program has made at least one serious oversight—prioritizing low calorie meals over ones that are actually provide nutritional value.

Consider an average lunch item at the Liberty cafeteria, the Western Chicken Burger. According to district-provided nutritional data, the burger contains only 452 calories. However, it also contains 1014 milligrams of sodium. This is almost 50% of the average adult daily value of 2400 milligrams. The burger contains only 25 grams of protein, while an equal sized portion of real chicken breast meat would contain more than 40 grams. Unfortunately, many of the foods that comply with federal standards are heavily processed, high in sodium, and low in crucial nutrients and other vitamins. The inconvenient truth is that calories are a part of truly nutritious food.

Next year, DECA will be forced to reduce high sugar items like iced teas and sports drinks and remove high calorie items like Panini sandwiches from its shelves. L Café may have to remove or reduce portion sizes on its Italian sodas, and reduce calorie contents on items like macaroni and cheese. Meanwhile, Papa John’s pizza remains untouched just because it remains under the calorie limit. This just doesn’t seem right.

Lunch requirements include at least one fruit or vegetable with each entrée, but slapping some feeble carrot sticks on the tray as a side does little to improve students’ diets. Even this requirement is not strictly followed. What about students who order pizza for lunch on an almost daily basis? Pizza and Gatorade do not make a complete meal, and pizza sauce and Riptide Rush are not a vegetable and fruit. Healthy eating involves education about nutrition and a balanced diet. Students need to make their own choices, but this is difficult when the most convenient options—on campus and off—provide little in the way of a balanced meal.

This is not to criticize the Issaquah School District. School lunches here—and the diversity of options—exceed what one would find in almost every other district in the country. Certain provisions make sense. Drinks like soda and even—though I hate to admit it—Arizona iced tea contain too much sugar to justify their place in a school setting. Students can still find these items off campus, but at least the district brought the choice to attention. Part of the problem though is consistency. How come the Western Chicken Burger is fine, but a DECA Panini, or maybe even L Café Macaroni and Cheese isn’t? Perhaps the latter two have more calories, but that doesn’t mean the chicken burger is much healthier.

The school district may begin to address some of these questions at a meeting scheduled on April 30, 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. at the ISD Administration center. Part of the agenda is a public comment period. Hopefully, a more consistent system of requirements can be developed. DECA and L Café should not be handicapped rules that apparently don’t apply to every school lunch option. Furthermore, classes like Health, Foods and Nutrition, and Culinary Arts should be emphasized more than restrictions on food options. To create lasting change, students themselves need to decide to eat healthfully. Regulations are a good way to promote healthier choices, but current rules may overlook the fact that nutrition extends beyond calorie counts.