A quick Google search for school breakfasts brings up plenty of real menus, many of which feature items like fried mozzarella sticks, Pop Tarts, “pancake on a stick,” and breakfast pizza. Some, occasionally, have yogurt with fruit. And there are plenty of articles in local papers which call out the problem, citing items like donuts (that was a favorite in my cafeteria as a kid) and cinnamon rolls. If anything is making kids fat, it’s not that they’re eating two breakfasts–it’s that they’re eating one, and it’s made up of a donut, a biscuit with jam, and a large glass of fructose-filled “juice beverage.”
But this isn’t even just about obesity–it’s also about giving poor kids yet another learning disadvantage. Children who eat crappy, sugary breakfasts have been shown to do more poorly on tests than those who ate a breakfast high in fiber and protein. Yes, nutritionally-devoid lunches teach kids that donuts for breakfast is a totally OK way to operate (I definitely thought it was for years), but it also knee-caps their studies.
Why is it so difficult to get fresh fruits, whole grains, and non-meat proteins on the menu? In part, it’s due to the lobbying organizations that push for things like hashbrowns, milk, sugary cereal and more frozen foods, and manipulate the USDA to carry their products. Which sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s actually not–the USDA (who decides both what we should be eating and what kids eat) is a close partner with the dairy industry, the potato industry, and many others, which is why for so many years, milk has be hailed as the healthiest of foods, despite the fact that green leafy veggies are actually much lower in fat, and just as high in calcium and vitamins A and D.
If you think the nation’s low-income students deserve better school breakfasts, there are a few ways to go about making your voice heard. The first is to do it the old-fashioned was: write, email, or call your representatives and let them know that in your state or district, you’d like to see them stand up to lobbying groups and demand more money to at least make fresh fruit, veggies, and whole grains available. Switch to more fibrous pancake mix, and yogurt with no added sugar. Offer non-meat proteins. It’s that simple.
The other option is to go to the school district. Districts and schools do have some buying power when it comes to what’s available to students–and a lot of times, they pick without much basis on nutrition, which means that many school meals actually don’t even meet federal requirements. Contacting local school districts, then, and supplying them with information (like the menu planning PDF from the USDA) can help them better use their allotted money, and perhaps persuade them to stop buying, say, Pop Tarts.
National School Breakfast Week may sound like another bogus five days of awareness for something that doesn’t matter, but the fact is that donuts for breakfast are just not a good option for students, especially those who are already struggling with the trappings of being low-income.