Select Page

Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.

They say you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Cafeteria directors say you can lead a child to healthy food, but you can’t make him eat it. Well, at least when he has the option of eating pizza and fries instead.

I’m on the road this week visiting cafeterias in Ohio and Massachusetts, and I’ve been continually struck by the difference between what’s offered to students and what actually ends up on their trays. All the high school cafeterias I’ve seen on this trip have offered dozens of choices, including healthy items like fresh sandwiches and salads. Yet probably 75 percent of students buy the same two or three items: pizza, chicken patty sandwiches and fries. ”It’s great that they have all that healthy stuff,” one high school student told me. “But nobody eats it. It’s a shelf-filler.”

At a high school in Massachusetts today, students could choose from sandwiches, salads, home-made shepherd’s pie, a hot sausage and pepper sub, turkey a la king with brown rice or pizza and tater tots. The adults buy the shepherd’s pie and the turkey, the director told me. About 80 percent of the students would opt for pizza and tater tots, she said.

At the high school I visited in Ohio, the cafeteria dishes out about 1,100 servings of french fries each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It sells about 60 salads.

Cafeteria directors always show me all the healthy options available to students, telling me how hard they work to give students the opportunity to eat a healthy meal. But that’s just what it is: an opportunity. The healthy choices are there, but they’re sitting right next to those oh-so-tempting junk foods. And when you lead a student to pizza and fries, he’s almost certain to choose that over a salad or turkey a la king with brown rice.

If we’re serious about student wellness, we’re going to have to stop approaching nutrition as an opportunity. Schools have a responsibility to make healthy eating the norm, not just an option for a few students who are already health-conscious.

photo courtesy of Adam Kuban, via flickr creative commons.