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The lunch tray has come a long way

By Monifa Bandele
On October 22, 2013

Remember leg warmers and when ketchup was a vegetable? Is it just me or have the 1980s been making a comeback? I can't get the sound of my kids singing "Another one Bites the Dust" in the car on the way to school out of my head. When I was a kid, I sang the song too. I remember imagining someone actually eating dust, or worse, my school lunch.

 National School Lunch Week also has me thinking way, way back to chocolate milk, square pizza slices (that needed a buzz saw to cut), rock hard tater tots, and a heaping side order of ketchup. Nostalgia?
 I know I am dating myself, but I also vaguely remember my parents and others getting fired up about the controversial proposal about what constituted a vegetable for school lunches. It all started like this: The Ominibus Reconciliation Acts of 1980 and 1981 reduced the budget of the Federal School Lunch Program by 25 percent. So, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service issued a proposal to allow school food services directors to expand (or better yet, cheapen) which food items fit the guidelines for "vegetables." The proposal went as far as listing pickle relish, as an example of a substitute for veggies.
 Needless to say, this proposal sparked considerable outrage among parents, educators and public health officials. The most well-known condiment, ketchup, became the movement's poster child for "veggies gone bad." Finally, the proposal to upgrade condiments into the elite realm of the vegetable food group was withdrawn before the end of 1981 and never implemented.
It's a new day! But, it's a long time coming.
 That incident, more than 30 years ago, gave rise to a movement that has helped to lay the groundwork for today's huge steps forward in school nutrition. Parents have been speaking out and, all over the country state, local, and school-based polices have given rise to salad bars, school gardens, and healthier options in the lunch line. Even better, this year, new national guidelines are taking effect from coast to coast.
 The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2011 has made way for lunchroom standards that require more whole grains and double the amount of fruits and vegetables. Many people thought the new guidelines would be a heavy or impossible lift for schools; but parents remained vigilant in speaking out, taking action, and letting all decision-makers know that better nutrition in schools is critical and doable. And, we were right. Just recently, the USDA announced that so far, 80 percent of schools are serving healthier meals that meet the upgraded nutrition standards.
 Like all parents, I hope that the images of poor quality school lunches that are low on nutrition and high on fat, salt, and sugar become extinct. I'd also like to limit leg warmers to re-enactments of "Flash Dance."


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