Farmer Q&A: Focus on School Lunches with Chris Chinn

January 04, 2013

Chris Chinn, a farmer who raises hogs and cattle, talks about why effective school lunch programs are important to farmers.

The new standards for school lunches went into effect at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act – one of first lady Michelle Obama’s components of the Let’s Move! campaign. Designed to reduce calorie intake of school lunches and to get kids to eat more nutritiously, the new program is ambitious in tackling a full overhaul of the school lunch system. But not everyone is a fan. In fact, kids and parents across the country are criticizing the plan, especially when it comes to meeting the caloric needs of older students and athletes. We talked to Chris Chinn, a farmer who raises hogs and cattle with her husband Kevin and his parents on their 400-acre farm in Clarence, Missouri, about the challenge of trying to fit all kinds of kids into a one-size-fits-all school lunch program.

Talk to us about the new calorie limits on school lunches. Who can benefit from them? Why were school lunch calories reduced?  

A one-size-fits-all program for our school lunches is not in the best interest of all kids. The new guidelines were based solely off the age of a child, and they do not factor in weight, height or activity level. For some kids, the only meals they may receive are at school. These kids may need more calories if their last meal of the day comes at noon. The new restrictions may be the correct fit for students who are not active but they won’t necessarily meet the needs of active students. The new guidelines are targeting overweight children. According to the CDC website, in 2008, 1/3 of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. 
Under the new guidelines, students can still get seconds of fruits and vegetables. Why isn’t this sufficient for every student?

As a parent, I am excited to see more fruits and vegetables offered to kids at school. However, not all students like every fruit and vegetable that is offered to them. If the fruit or vegetable of the day offered isn’t one a child likes, they are not likely to eat their first serving, let alone a second serving. For some children, raw fruits and vegetables, which are commonly served in school lunches, may cause stomach upset. For children who are Type 1 diabetics, the increased fruit can cause issues for their insulin levels if they take seconds and their prescribed insulin (sent from home) was based on one serving of fruit. The point is, not every child is the same, and that’s okay. We cannot feed every child the same – each child’s nutritional needs are different based on their weight, height, age and activity level. No child should leave the lunchroom hungry, even if they are picky eaters. We send our children to school to learn and a hungry child cannot learn.
Do you think that the school lunch programs have been unfairly accused of contributing to childhood obesity?

School lunches are not the culprit behind childhood obesity. I cannot speak for every school, but I do not feel my children’s school lunches were extremely caloric before the new guidelines. Previously our school lunches had to meet a minimum calorie requirement but there was not a maximum calorie requirement.

When I was a child, we had three recesses every day at school, and we had Physical Education class every day too. My children do not have PE every day, and they do not have three recesses. To meet increased educational requirements, our schools have reduced physical education time. We need to encourage our children to exercise more if our schools are not allowing enough time in the day to exercise. Today’s children are growing up with computers and video games, which do not require physical exercise like riding a bike or playing on the playground. Children living in urban areas may not have a safe place to play and get exercise without adult supervision. This is why it’s so important for our schools to teach physical education every day in a safe environment.    

Are we losing focus on other contributing factors to childhood obesity?

Enforcing lunch guidelines at school are not going to combat children being overweight – it starts at home. My daughter ate school lunch every day for eight years until this year and she is very active. She is not overweight, she is in the 25th percentile in weight for children her age. She plays softball, basketball and runs track.
Schools can help children by allowing more time for physical education, as well as nutritional education. It is no secret that today’s children spend more time on computers and video games than children did who grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Forcing children to eat foods they do not like will more than likely cause an aversion to the food, which is not the desired outcome of this program.
How could the calorie limits affect how students learn in school? And what happens after school?

If the child doesn’t eat all of the food on their tray, they may not even be receiving the minimum calorie requirements. A hungry child cannot learn. When test scores begin to fall, the teachers will unfairly get the blame. If a child cannot concentrate due to being hungry, no matter how good a teacher is, they cannot make a child learn.

When a child comes home from school hungry, the first thing they do is look for food. Most kids will choose snacks like chips, cookies and candy over apples, oranges and carrots. And most kids will over eat because they are so hungry and they eat too fast trying to curb their hunger. 
Why is the school lunch issue important to farmers?

Farmers are parents too, and we want our children to receive the best education possible. If our children are hungry, they cannot learn. For many rural areas, the majority of our students play organized school sports so the school can have a team. Many of these children get on the school bus before 7:00 in the morning and they don’t get home from practice until 6:30 or later at night. And if there is a game, it could be 10:00 before our kids get home. Other kids work after school, either on farms or in town, until 7:00 or later. Limiting the amount of food these active children can receive at school isn’t a healthy alternative for their growing bodies and minds. USDA suggests parents send snacks to school with their children if they are still hungry. This solution isn’t feasible because schools do not allow our children to eat during classes and there isn’t enough time in between classes. And not every active child comes from a family that can afford to send snacks to school with their children.
Some say that school lunch is one of the only places where children receive a balanced meal. How would you respond to that?

School lunches may be the only hot meal many children receive each day. As a parent, I don’t want to see any child go hungry. Our schools need to nurture our children’s growing minds and bodies in the classroom and lunchroom. Each child has different needs and there needs to be room in the guidelines for schools to determine how to best meet the needs of their student population.   

For more information about the new school lunch regulations, click here.