Yesterday, I attended the first meeting of the new District Nutrition Council that the superintendent of our school system has put together to look at improving school meals. The council consists of the superintendent, a school nurse, a physical education teacher, and any parent who would like to be part of the group. I was one of three parents there, although I believe there were a few others who were interested but weren’t able to make the meeting because it was scheduled during the day.


It was scheduled during the day so that two representatives from our district’s meal service provider, one who works directly in our schools, could attend. I really liked these women. They are truly trying to figure out how to get the healthiest foods to our kids while dealing with incredible budgetary and bureaucratic restraints.


They told us how some of the food that’s served to our kids through the meal program has hidden good stuff. They serve black bean brownies in our cafeterias and apparently the kids love them. I had no idea. The pizza brought in from a chain on Fridays is on whole-wheat crust and made with low-fat cheese. Again, I didn’t know. It’s not spelled out on the menu because the belief is that many students would chose not to eat it if they knew it was a little healthier.


There was a lot of information to take in and process during the hour-long meeting, and I walked away with a better understanding of what the district (and most districts) are up against when trying to make changes for the better. Some of the things discussed in the meeting gave me hope. Some of them made me want to scream.


A discussion about soup was one of the topics that falls into the scream category. Someone asked why more soup isn’t served. We were told that tomato soup is served on grilled cheese day, but in general soups are an “iffy” item because it’s difficult to make sure each portion served is a qualified serving.


If each serving of vegetables has to be a half-cup, it’s not possible to make sure that each bowl of soup served from a big pot has a full serving of vegetables in it. Even if a soup is laden with good stuff like vegetables and beans, it can’t qualify as part of the required components of a meal because of this rule.


Soup can be served, but it has to be in addition to the five components of each meal that are required by the government, and it won’t be a reimbursable item. Unless a school has extra money in it’s meal budget, good, healthy, homemade soup is not likely to be served to the kids.


This is not the fault of the schools. It is not the fault of the food service provider or the lunchroom workers. It is not the fault of the district that approves a budget. It’s the fault of a broken system.


The government rules as they are written say it’s okay to serve flavorless, mushy green beans that have had most of the nutrients cooked out of them because they can be measured properly. Never mind that most kids will throw them in the trash. That's a qualified serving and that’s what counts. It’s not okay to serve flavorful, healthy soup that kids will eat because the serving can’t be qualified.


This is so infuriating. Isn’t it better to have students eat a soup that might accidently have only a third of a cup of vegetables in it than to serve them a half cup of vegetables that won’t get eaten at all?


I’m very glad that my school district is starting to look into what we can change. I’m glad I’m part of the process. I just hope I don’t go running from a meeting screaming one day out of total frustration.


MNN homepage photo: Shutterstock

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Soup in schools? Not unless there's money to spare
As a member of a new group that’s trying to improve school meals, our food blogger learns that government regulations often get in the way of serving good foo