Want to hear something depressing? According to teachers' estimates, two-thirds of students in some public schools rely on school lunch as their primary source of caloric intake. Want to hear something else depressing (YES!) According to government data, between 16 and 33% of American children and teens are obese. What's a school lunch program to do? If you're New York City's public school system, the answer is to cut calories so that the fat kids become less fat, to levels below federal caloric guidelines. But what about the kids whose only caloric intake comes from mystery meat and the mysterious creamy gravy of the chicken a la king? Are they supposed to subsist on the happiness that comes from knowing that Mayor Bloomberg is bravely battling child obesity? What's the vitamin D content of, uh, knowing you took one for Team No Fat Kids?
The Times found that NYC has been skirting federal school lunch requirements for Lord knows how long and without the approval of the federal government, all under the banner of banishing child obesity. It's not the quantity of calories that matter, argue school officials, it's the quality. And even though public school kids weren't technically getting what the government says they needed, nutrition-wise, officials say that the new lower caloric standards set by the federal government vindicate their judgment call.
Nutritional requirements for public school lunches are dizzyingly complicated, turns out. Schools are encouraged to offer salad bars, but salad bars don't count toward meal calorie totals. The maximum number of calories allowed per meal is only 100 calories more than the minimum number of calories required per meal, and the number of calories to be served to students varies by the student's grade level. New federal requirements demand schools serve students more whole grains and fruits and vegetables and less Cheetos Flambe, and chefs have been working in test kitchens to make sure that Our Children's trays are loaded with only the most nutrient-dense of foodstuffs.
All of these things are good — school lunches should be healthier for kids. Public school lunch should be made of something besides triangular fish patties and day old buns. Rectangular pizza covered with vegetable oil cheese served with a pile o' salty fries isn't doing anyone any favors. But ignoring federal requirements and cutting calories on a meal that, for many children is their primary source of nutrients isn't doing any children any favors. Making fat kids un-fat isn't more important than making sure starving kids don't starve. Why can't school officials meet calorie minimums by serving kids a shitload of uber healthy food? Unlimited cauliflower. No one gets fat by sitting there gorging themselves on cauliflower.