As your child walks in from school, takes off his backpack and slumps on the couch, obviously exhausted from a full day of school, you may wonder why his energy has vanished. Ask him what he had for lunch in the school cafeteria, and you may find your answer.

From pizza and French fries to fruit dripping with rich corn syrup and canned, processed vegetables, your child’s food choices may be less than desirable to a health-conscious parent. It’s no wonder your child’s energy is gone and his clothes keep getting tighter.

Many parents are finding that school lunches could be adding to the childhood obesity epidemic. Luckily, there is something you can do to help.

What’s For Lunch?

“The problem with many school lunches, or meals rather, is that they are highly processed,” says Elizabeth Prebish, registered dietitian for Organic Life, provider of healthy lunches in Chicago, Illinois. “Many school lunches include processed meats, fried foods and high amounts of sugars or carbohydrates.”

With restricted budgets to feed large quantities of mouths, typical food service companies use conventional meats that contain hormones, antibiotics and steroids – all things small children do not need, says Prebish.

In addition to lunch, it’s possible your child is filling up on sweets as well. The school lunch system provides many opportunities for sweets, including offering ice cream and bakery items, not to mention chocolate milk. “Having these items as daily options is definitely a contribution to the obesity epidemic,” says Prebish. “These processed sugars are addictive, leaving children craving the same foods not only in school but when they are home as well.”

Snack Time

From Halloween and fall festivals to school picnics and class parties, a celebration with food is a common occurrence in the classroom. Beyond the gorging of party cookies and cakes, some nutrition experts believe that even healthier snacks scheduled into the daily classroom schedule can contribute to childhood obesity.

“The number one way in which schools contribute to childhood obesity is by scripting snacks into the daily schedule,” says Adrienne Hew, nutrition specialist and founder of “Children who are well fed do not need snacks – having snacks scripted into the schedule drives them to want to eat even when they are not hungry.”

The idea of incorporating snacks into the school day derived from a practice used for diabetics that uses small meals throughout the day to help keep blood sugar steady, says Hew. “However, the snacks that are offered to children would kill a diabetic – crackers, cookies, Cheerios and juice,” she says.

Cooking Up Change

In order to prompt change, parents need to offer solutions and suggestions to school districts and school board members. Offering a viable solution that is realistic with decreased school budgets is key.

“I would love to see schools engage with the community by going to local farmers or food co-ops and cutting cheap or free deals to absorb their leftover produce or produce that isn’t perfect for selling at the stand but can still be salvaged for making soups, stews and salads,” says Hew.

Another inexpensive option would be to recruit culinary students to complete internships in the schools as apprenticing or head chefs under the supervision of the person who normally is in charge of budgeting, suggests Hew. This economically-appealing option would give interns the opportunity to practice their skills, prepare healthy, innovative meals for school lunches and afford the district with a cost-effective option.

Parents can also advocate for a food service system that offers more natural products, says Prebish. “If this is not an option, work with your food service provider to determine more healthful substitutions that the children will also enjoy,” she says. “Try for more natural, and even organic, products wherever possible.”

In addition to working with food service systems, make yourself known at school board meetings. Parents can work to improve lunch selections by speaking to the board, the community and fellow parents. At each meeting try to provide a suggestion for healthier options, such as replacing meat-based burgers with veggie burgers.

According to Dr. Timothy Radak, faculty member in the Public Health program at Walden University, veggie burgers typically have one-third the amount of fat, no cholesterol and are similar in regards to the amount of protein as meat-based burgers.

Suggest cost-saving, evidence-based ideas to show the benefits to the district’s bottom line and the overall health of each student on campus. Schools could also reduce or eliminate some foods with health risks, such as red meat, processed foods or sugary drinks, says Radak. “Use the cost savings to provide more fresh fruits, vegetables and low fat, nutritious meal options.”

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