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New school lunch rules: How not to get kids to eat their vegetables

Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should have consulted some everyday, health-conscious moms and dads before they drew up their amazingly byzantine rules for school lunches.

I’m all in favor of the new policy’s aim to put more fruits and vegetables in front of school kids, especially those who are poor enough to qualify for subsidized school meals. Even if that means a few veggies get tossed in the trash. Most parents know that children, especially those more used to Pringles than parsnips, do a lot of refusing before they develop a taste for vegetables.

For one thing, the rules practically mandate a staggering amount of food waste. The list of bad policies, including the requirement for students to take three items per day even if they’re only hungry enough for two, is rather staggering. Worse, though, is that prissily rigid policies intended to increase fruit and vegetable consumption might be having the opposite effect.

Call it the Mixed Vegetable Conundrum. Most parents know that the best way to tuck a serving of vegetables into kids is to hide it, or at least mix it up with other ingredients so that it’s not sitting on the plate in a pile. This means items like soup that contain meat, vegetables and maybe some rice or dairy. Especially pureed, so that children don’t guess that the sweet taste comes from carrots and yams. Or they can be chopped up and layered into a lasagna, or ground up into the meat for a burger. Top that burger with lettuce and tomato, put a couple of carrot and celery sticks on the side and it’s not so intimidatingly vegetable-laden.

The rules make this nearly impossible, as a food services director explained to me. Each day is a themed veggie day, if you will. Yellow vegetables one day, red another, dark green and so forth. On each day, there must be a full serving of the designated vegetables. The cafeteria can add other vegetables, but that’s expensive and more than the kids would eat. The nice picture of that vegetable-garnished burger goes out the window until someone figures out how to get a half-cup of cooked spinach into a single burger.

This isn’t how kids learn to eat vegetables.

We can only take hope that federal regulators will pay attention to what I’ll call the Smoothie Exception. Until a couple of years ago, schools could serve students some strawberries, for example, and yogurt. But they couldn’t combine the two in a blender into a smoothie (and maybe tuck some undetectable kale in there for good measure) under another rule that requires the fruits and vegetables to be identifiably themselves rather than blended into an overall product. After intense lobbying from schools, the feds recently agreed to a smoothie waiver.

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