THE RISE OF COERCIVE NUTRITION: Who likes school lunch, anyway?

You can blame Michelle Obama or the hippie moms in your local Whole Foods, but
either way, the pressure is on for school lunches to get healthier. What does that mean for students?

The next five-letter word parents are banning from their households is sugar. You’ve witnessed battles for nutrition legislation, passionate debates on cafeteria initiatives and vending machine reforms and the rise of popular—sometimes notorious—blogs like Food Babe.

Parents, with their familiar well intentions, are raving over the mass media campaigns on childhood obesity, whether or not their children are actually affected. But does the apple fall far from the tree? The nutrition debate in schools is missing one vital ingredient: student perspectives.

In terms of health, Marshall is on the progressive side of the spectrum. The implementation of the Statesmen Station during the second year of renovations was a nutritious milestone for Fairfax County.

Described as a “pilot kitchen” at its conception in 2012, the Statesman Station has been featured on TV and an array of impressive publications (including the Washington Post, and of course, the Rank & File).
Health is a clear priority in Marshall. Bake sales during school hours? Banned. Sodas in vending machines? Banned. Certain vending machines don’t even open until 30 minutes after the final bell.

Buyers and bringers

Freshman Esau Alvarez normally buys lunch, but the menu hardly blows him away.
“It’s okay,” Alvarez said. “They could be better.”

Not an impressive reaction from a menu described by Washington Post’s education column as “an appetizing smorgasbord” during the 2013-2014 school year.

Even though the station doesn’t live up to the hype for some, others are perfectly content.

Sophomore Riley Cherrix is a regular customer, and a happy one at that.

“I like the food they serve; it’s very tasteful,” Cherrix said about the cafeteria selection as a whole.

Cherrix is pleased with this year’s changes, but admits that the menu isn’t always up to the par it claims.

“Sometimes the food is okay, other times it’s not,” Cherrix said. “It kind of differs.”

Cherrix is a fan of the snack bar, which she sees as a consistent alternative on the more lackluster days.

President of the Nutrition Club, senior Nikki Pope, doesn’t expect an immediate change: . “While introducing a new healthy option for lunch obviously doesn’t mean that everyone is suddenly going to start eating more healthfully, I think the biggest merit of the Statesmen Station is that it provides options for students,” Pope said. “It shows them a pretty good variety of healthy foods that they could be eating for lunch, and by doing so, it shows them that its really not that difficult to eat and genuinely enjoy a healthy lunch.”

Variety is a huge plus for picky teens, who typically default to flavorful, if unhealthy junk food.

“I like this part, right here,” Cherrix said, gesturing towards the snack area. “If I don’t like the food they’re serving, I’ll go to the snack bar, and it’s like an alternative.”

For lunch bringers like freshman Monisha Thoutam, there’s not much that the school can do to change her mind.

“I just like home lunch better,” Thoutam said. “[I only buy] when my mom’s not feeling well, or if I don’t have enough time before school.”

Still, Thoutam suggests more of a mix of healthy food and junk food. It seems the key to gaining student favor is variety.

“I think [even the snack bar] should have something different,” Cherrix said. “Like each week, a new different thing.”

Choices, choices, choices

While the Statesmen Station has mixed reviews, the vending machine time restrictions garnered a notably stronger response.

“They should keep it open more,” Alverez said about the vending machines that don’t open until 2:40 every afternoon.

Students who don’t stay after school for extracurricular activities don’t get the chance to even use those vending machines.

According to Cherrix, the vending machines’ time restrictions make them just over the threshold of being useful to everyday students.

“I think it should be adjusted just a wee bit,” Cherrix said. “It’s available, and more people can go to it as an alternative.”

Pope herself agrees that, at the moment, the restrictions are limiting.

“However, I think the only reason that we are really seeing the downside of these restrictions is because they are brand new.” Pope said. “What I mean by that is that the plan has really only been halfway implemented.”

According to Pope, more change is on the way. Food and nutrition services are still working on replacing unhealthy snacks with healthier, and tastier options.

“Once they get all the logistics worked out, there will be a wider variety of (delicious) snacks that can be sold during the school day.”

In terms of the new bake sale restrictions, which complicated club fundraising events, clubs will be happy to hear that the Nutrition Club and Food and Nutrition Services are collaborating to create recipes clubs can use. Whether or not the enthusiasm will return for healthier recipes is up for time to decide.

In fairness, high school students aren’t known to be the most health-conscious of people, so it’s understandable that there are so many restrictions in school.

“While right now, we all have pretty high metabolisms and the effects of junk food don’t always hit us head on,” Pope said. “It is important to develop healthy eating habits so that we don’t have to make a huge lifestyle change once we’re not so young and sprightly.

At the same time, it’s important for high school students to make their own decisions and decide for themselves what’s healthy and what isn’t.

The USDA ChooseMyPlate website only recently added a new section on high school nutrition habits.
The 67-page lesson plan, while made with the intention of being accessible to students, probably isn’t going to be on anyone’s reading list. And that’s a choice we should let students make.