Gen Z honestly lucked out in one sense: school lunches.
No, really, if you were a 90s kid stuck with a cheese slice wedged between slices of white bread, weirdly greasy 6-inch cookies, and ice-cold chicken nuggets, you’re really missing out. Modern school lunches are now healthier than ever, with whole grains, vegetables, and fruits on trays.
But some districts also had the genius idea of adding fast food — like burgers, fries, soda, and fried chicken — into the cafeteria line somewhere between the apples and the coleslaw.
Bummer alert! Check out these 11 down-right depressing statistics about fast food in schools.
Table of Contents
- Kids Are Eating More Fast Food Than in Previous Years
- Fast Food Availability in Schools
- Fast Food in Schools and Weight Gain
Kids Are Eating More Fast Food Than in Previous Years
- According to the CDC, children are eating more fast food than ever, accounting for 13.8% of the average child’s diet in 2015–18 — up 1.4% from 2011–12.
- Close to one-third (36.3%) of U.S. children ate fast food on any given day in 2015–18.
- In 2010, 79% of children and adolescents ate fast food on the average week.
- Ninety-one percent of U.S. parents bought their children a meal from Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, or McDonald’s in any given week in 2016.
For Many Parents, Fast Food Is the Easy — and Cheap — Option
OK, yes, Americans fit the “lazy” stereotype pretty damn well. But when you have little mouths to feed, live paycheck-to-paycheck, and work late into the evening, can you really blame the parents waiting in the Wendy’s drive-thru?
Preparing a healthy meal for the entire family could take more than an hour. Stopping by the local fast food joint on the way home from soccer practice adds 382 seconds to your route (really, they counted), the kids can eat it in the car, and there’s no clean-up involved.
Healthy diets rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy cost $1.50 more per day to sustain. That’s an extra $547.50 per year per child. Plus, a Big Mac meal packs a more calorie-dense punch — sometimes a day’s worth of calories — than a salad or chicken and rice.
… But There’s a Catch
Fast food joints from Subway and KFC to Burger King and Panera Bread have their own kids’ menus with healthy (-ish) options. Yet, parents are still reluctant to swap out the fries for an apple or the soda for a water bottle.
In fact, with these options readily available, only half chose a healthier side while just shy of 60% swapped in a more nutritious beverage. Not to mention the ⅓ of parents who bought their child an adult-sized meal at a fast-food joint
As they say, old habits die hard.
Fast Food Availability in Schools
- Students in America eat nearly half of their calories at school, including from snack bars, a la carte cafeteria lines, or vending machines.
- Three in five (61%) middle school students had access to foods high in sugar and salt in the school cafeteria — or 75% when broadening it to all food available on-campus.
- Fast food is a popular choice for children due to its widespread availability, advertising, addictive tastes and textures, and lifestyle factors.
Are School Lunches Really That Unhealthy?
All participating schools had to remaster their lunch menus to meet new nutritional guidelines and un-fuel the obesity epidemic. Here’s how that played out for the middle-school bunch:
Sure, these revamped requirements mark “progress,” but the impact is still widely unknown.
It Doesn’t Include Everything
Pepperoni pizza, French fries, and BBQ chicken are still in the lunch line because the NSLP doesn’t stop schools from selling fast food a la carte. Children who don’t want to eat a ham sandwich on whole-grain with an apple can buy French fries from the snack bar instead.
Political theater also loosened many of the 2010 guidelines, allowing for schools to sell unhealthy sides like biscuits and higher-sodium snacks. However, some states are now tightening these guidelines to either ban soda and salty snacks or limit their sales on-campus.
Kids Don’t Always Eat Healthy
Expanding access to vegetables and fruits in the lunch line can inspire students to eat healthier. One study found, of children encouraged to eat healthily, 8.7% consumed all of their veggies, while 11.1% could say the same about fruits.
Of course, that also means that many students are dumping most — if not all — of their fruits and vegetables or pawning them off on their friends.
There Are Plenty of Exposed Loopholes
One of the primary reasons the government continues to meddle with these guidelines is because there’s always somebody digging for a loophole.
In the past, schools could classify pizza as a vegetable, protein, and whole grain. Domino’s even has its own NSLP-compliant pizzas!
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Fast Food in Schools and Weight Gain
- Food served by the National School Lunch Program is one of the leading causes of obesity in children.
- Another study of eighth-graders did not find a link between school junk food and obesity risks, as the overweight rates were similar between students with access (35.55%) and those without (34.8%).
- Children with an overweight parent are more likely to be overweight themselves, with 10% more junk food access leading to a 1% increase in BMI.
- Even slightly changing school food options can decrease the fat, sugar, and calories in the average student’s diet.
How Do We Fix This Problem?
Who would’ve thought the government program designed to provide 50 million students with access to balanced foods was actually making things that much worse? Fortunately, research proving as much inspired Congress to reform the NSLP.
But until nutritionists and dieticians are the ones creating and implementing these policies, these guidelines will almost always be exploited, and children will be the ones who suffer the most (even if fast food in schools isn’t making them overweight).
Yet, as the research proves, the solution actually starts in each individual home:
- Prepare your children balanced foods at home, rich in colors.
- Teach them how to eat and when to stop (when they feel slightly full).
- Use extra salt and sugar in moderation at mealtime.
- Avoid fast food as much as possible, preferring home-cooked meals instead.
- Replace most beverages with water.
- Motivate your children to exercise and play sports.
- Pack your child’s lunch every day.
- Encourage healthy snacking throughout the day.
- Walkthrough how to choose foods when at a restaurant, cafe, or buffet.
- Lead by example and develop a healthier lifestyle your kids can mirror.
If your district steps up their game, gets rid of the vending machine and snack bar, and only sells healthy options, even better!
Is Junk Food Good in Schools?
At one point, junk food was good in schools. But that’s only because school lunches pre-2010 — when Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act — were actually less safe to eat than traditional fast food.
Chains like McDonald’s and Burger King were held to stricter inspection standards (for bacteria like salmonella) than meals served by the federally funded National School Lunch Program.
School lunches were also hardly nutritious. Before these changes took effect during the 2012 school year, the average elementary school student selected meals with:
- 600 calories
- 27.7% calories from fat
- 28g of protein
- 1,148 milligrams of sodium
- 6 grams of dietary fiber
- 82 grams of carbohydrates
… which is only slightly healthier than two McDonald’s cheeseburgers.
Is Junk Food Bad in Schools?
Junk food isn’t bad in schools for students with healthy eating habits and good role models. In fact, one study from 2012 revealed that “opening the floodgates” and giving fifth-graders access to junk food didn’t motivate them to satisfy their sweet (or savory) tooth at school.
Nearly eight in ten (76.5%) didn’t buy sweets on-campus in the previous week, with even more not splurging on salty snacks (83.8%) and soda (87.6%).
But a vending machine in every hallway isn’t a good idea either.
That’s because healthy eating habits begin at home and young — often as early as preschool. Young children with access to salty, sweet, or fatty foods at home tend to prefer these foods above fruits and vegetables, which makes the a la carte line or snack bar a natural choice.
These habits are so easy to adopt that children of two obese parents are 80% likely to be obese themselves (this number drops to 50% for one parent).
Junk food isn’t bad in schools if children have a healthy relationship with food and can make thoughtful choices. And this is something that needs to be resolved early in adolescence since the average diet of a college student isn’t much better.
How Does Fast Food Affect Students?
Fast food is actually extremely harmful to the growing mind. A disturbing bit of research shows that children who ate fast food more days than not (4–7) scored lower on eighth-grade science, math, and reading tests.
Fast food is also high in carbohydrates and sugar causes a surge in blood sugar followed by a crash. This can translate to low performance, difficulty concentrating, crankiness, and fatigue in the classroom.
As much as we love to blame school districts, teachers, and the government for every mishap in the books, the problem isn’t necessarily with the availability of fast food on school grounds. Though, it definitely feeds into the American stereotype.
Look inward. If you’re eating foods high in sugar, have high cholesterol, or haven’t worn your running shoes in three months, your children are picking up on these cues. Set a good example at home, and even the best-tasting burrito or burger won’t push your kid to indulge.
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