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What Schools Feed Our Kids: Pop-Tarts or False Starts?

by on February 09, 2011 6:00 AM

A blueberry unfrosted Pop-Tart has five grams of fat, three teaspoons of sugar, and 180 mg of sodium.

The front of the package reads “Made With Real Fruit,” but the ingredient list on the back—Red #40, Blue #1, TBHQ—calls to mind a laboratory filled with people wearing white coats, not a field of farmers in overalls.

This “food substance” is one of the options my son was given for breakfast this week.

Not by me. By the school district.

In reality, I’m not sure if it was the blueberry unfrosted Pop-Tart, a frosted cherry Pop-Tart, or any other flavor, because he eats yogurt and cereal at home. But the Pop-Tart is on the February menu—more than once.

The frosted cherry Pop-Tart has nearly four teaspoons of sugar, which isn’t far from the amount of sugar in four Twizzlers. (But as my husband points out, in the taste department, the Pop-Tart flattens the Twizzler; those people in the white coats knew what they were doing.)

A close friend happens to run the lunch program for a school district in Virginia, so I’ve heard a thing or two about the challenges of running a school lunch program. The two biggest hurdles: money and a client base that would prefer to eat cheesy carbohydrates five days a week.

Still, while I’d give nearly every other aspect of my son’s public education (so far) a glowing report card, the cafeteria menu is in serious need of a parent-teacher conference.

Pop Tarts. Hot dogs. Berry Kix. Chocolate, vanilla and strawberry milk.

Sure, there are plenty of healthy options, too, such as brown rice, salads, and hard-boiled eggs.  But while I can direct my son toward the healthier food choices, I’m not with him when he walks through the lunch line every day.

What’s more, if all his friends are drinking chocolate milk, I’m not going to deprive him of his own lunchtime sugar splurge.

I’ve never believed in banning certain foods from his diet. He eats the occasional McDonald’s cheeseburger when we go through the drive-thru on the way to his grandparents’ house in New Jersey. We make plenty of trips to the Penn State Creamery. And Halloween is one of those look-the-other-way-days that all kids should enjoy.

We also stock our fridge with healthy options like almond butter, apples and carrots. And while we won’t tell him he can never eat a Pop-Tart, I’m not going to introduce him to it, either. (Although I have been tempted to take him for a chocolate-covered Twinkie at Chocolate Madness; despite my predilection for organic fruit and veggies, I will always appreciate the synthetic goodness of the oblong yellow cake that magically holds gobs of whipped cream. I fully support our local chocolate shop’s decision to dip that masterpiece into chocolate.)

Back to my point. Expecting a 6-year-old to make healthy food choices is a tall order. But it shouldn’t be for our schools.

According to a recent NPR report, the average school lunch has about 1,600 milligrams of sodium. That’s 400 milligrams more than what the Mayo Clinic says my son, and other boys age 4 to 8, should have in a day.

The good news is that our school lunch programs may be getting a major makeover. The USDA recently proposed new school lunch standards, including more fruits and vegetables and less sodium. The rules would go into effect in 2012, but schools would get plenty of time to tweak them.

Getting this right may be our schools’ most important jobs. In my opinion, what happens in the 20 or so minutes that make up that lunch period is just as important as what occurs in literacy group or math class. When those kindergartners walk through that lunch line, they’re subconsciously registering food preferences that will last until high school and beyond.

We don’t need a nutrition class to tell us that sodium, sugar and fat are not the components of healthy brain fuel.

Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at or contact her at [email protected]
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