Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) serves over 80,000 students meals over the 180-day school year. Mostly, this means lunch, but public schools also serve breakfast prior to classes, and many of these students rely on it. What are they getting? This week, at Antioch High School, breakfast choices generally range from “cereal bars” to “breakfast pizza,” served with apple slices. On two days, students will be offered a “turkey biscuit,” the only option that explicitly includes a solid protein. The trend for breakfasts across school menus seem to be simple sugars and a side of fruit—not exactly brain food.
For lunch, students can choose between a “chef’s salad” with ham or tuna, or a variety spanning the week of selections such as “crispy chicken sandwich” and “general tso’s chicken.” In a funny turn, the most healthy and appetizing option across the weeklong lunch menu is “cilantro-lime brown rice and black beans.” Read: rice and beans.
Which dietary suggestions do these meals follow? The USDA Dietary Guidelines released every five years (last in 2020) are the book all public schools work from to design menus. These guidelines haven't changed much in the last two decades, and though they are imperfect, a menu that follows them would be far better than what MNPS students are given. While the USDA guidelines are still outdated—failing to acknowledge the benefits of animal products and promoting empty, high omega-6 seed oils—they do encourage a variety of food.
Modeled after Michelle Obama’s MyPlate with a vegan-inclusive twist, the booklet recommends that diets include relatively equal portions of vegetables to whole grains, and fruits to protein. It also includes the suggestion of some dairy or “dairy alternatives” each day. The tagline for these is “Make Every Bite Count,” meaning that every food consumed to meet a daily caloric intake should also be as nutritious and filling as possible. This is in response to the growing obesity epidemic in the United States, which the USDA has been desperately flailing against for the last thirty years.
Interestingly, the USDA guidelines our public school menus are modeled after explicitly state multiple times to avoid fried foods and foods with added sugars. A scan of the breakfast menus across Metro Nashville Public Schools will indicate that there are more than enough chocolate chip muffins, pancakes, and sugary cereals—indeed, aside from a bit of fruit, this is what is offered the majority of the time. Along with this, each week seems to include a crispy chicken sandwich or chicken tenders on the lunch menu. While chicken is a low fat animal protein and a great choice when eating on a budget (and we know kids love chicken tenders) there are a plethora of ways to serve it that aren’t covering it in batter or breading. And of course, let’s be honest, this is not grandma’s fried chicken they are getting, but the absolute cheapest industrial stuff, frozen and reheated.
Granted, students don’t pay much for these meals and free or reduced price meals are commonplace—but they are children. Throughout the majority of published government food guidelines, a common thread is the importance of proper and whole food for growing people. For those spending a day trying to learn, I’d imagine that junk food and sides of fruit scarfed down in under 30 minutes are not giving them fuel for a six hour day. Instead, they get a high amount of nervous energy and an insulin dumping crash to follow. If grades and numbers are the concern, wouldn’t a proper diet make a massive difference?
A study in 2015 broached this issue, finding that high energy intake combined with fruits and vegetables was most conducive to the learning and development of elementary school students. Not only that, but feeding them a healthy diet also educates them with how to feed themselves as they grow. Is it any wonder adults struggle with understanding proper nutrition after twelve years of chocolate milk and chicken nuggets? The 2015 study was conducted in the hopes of directing investors in the public school system to prioritize school food for this reason.
While fish is expensive and must be prepared in a particular way, many studies have proven that it is paramount to cognitive function and learning. Fish contains lots of protein, healthy fats and branched-chain amino acids (that’s right, the same stuff in your pre-workout slosh) that promote healthy, maintained energy levels and memory. One study in 2012 which focused on “brain food” found that instances of major depression decreased linearly with pounds of fish consumed per year. This means that eating fish not only supplies people with energy and increases our ability to retain information, but actually improves our mood. If you’ve ever gone through public school, you know that is a great boon.
This same study honed in on the importance of a balanced hormonal biome found with a balanced diet. The biome that operates more than 75% out of our gut is responsible for our immune systems, cardiovascular systems, and our nervous systems. That means feeding good bacteria, and not bad bacteria, is very important for cognitive function, mood, and all-around health.
Nutrients that were proven to be highly beneficial are similarly underrepresented in MNPS menus. These include: omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, kiwi, and certain nuts and seeds); curcumin (found in turmeric); flavonoids (whole citrus fruits and dark chocolate); choline (eggs and red meat); and—if you read these articles regularly, you’ve guessed it—saturated fats. That means butter, dairy, and other animal products. This is one example of a nutrient that is both not highly present in school lunch menus, and explicitly discouraged by the USDA.
IT’S ABOUT MONEY
On the MNPS website, it is indicated that the annual budget is allocated “based on current data, our priorities and our values,” and with input from “staff, parents and community leaders” before being approved by the Mayor. Money for the school system is pulled from taxes and grants at every level. This money goes into four major fund accounts: General Purpose (daily operating costs), Federal and Categorical Programs (where grant money goes), Food Service, and the Capital Budget (a six-year list of projects approved by the Board of Education). It’s safe to say that food service should be a priority, so is it?
Last year, expenditures from the Food Service account totalled about $59 million for food, labor, and planning. It may sound like a whole lot, but let’s break that down with what that is actually paying for. The budget indicates that for the fiscal year 2023, there are 82,610 students in the city’s public school system. If we divide that massive $59 million by the number of students, and again by the number of days in a school year, that means that about $4 goes to feeding each student daily. No wonder we’re seeing a lot of cereal bars and frozen chicken.
Originally, the Food Service fund actually had $9 million less allocated to it. And while all of those numbers sound enormous, it must be considered that the total revenue for MNPS in the same budget was an incredible $1.7 billion. Therefore, Food Services accounted for only about 3.4% of the total budget for the year, left in the dust by General Purpose, Debt Service, and most notably: Federal, State, and Local Grants, which account for six times the amount of spending. If Nashville’s children are being fed oil and sugar while being expected to learn how to be the next generation of our workers, maybe some grants could go towards the food they eat.
Ultimately, the pressure to make this happen has to come from the city’s parents. Officials have been making it clear for years that they don’t see a need in prioritizing proper meals. If this budget is actually made with input from parents, a whole lot of them absolutely must come together to apply pressure. This can be with calls, mail, and votes. Get in touch with the Board of Education, and the Mayor. Explain to them why your children need real food to perform well and to create a better world over the next fifty years. Never let up. Sure, maybe we all ate garbage public school food growing up, but shouldn’t we always want better for the next generation? Improvement at this small level now will not only teach the next generation about their own nutrition and help them make use of all of those school hours now, but show them the value of regular folks fighting tooth-and-nail for their fundamental rights: the oldest American tradition.