A Change of Heart About School Lunch
Part of Melissa Gerharter’s job is to advocate for the national school meals programs, but this registered dietitian and mom of three didn’t always believe school meals were a nutritious option.
“I thought school lunches were nasty and just not well thought out,” said Gerharter. “I perceived them to be not nutritious at all.”
But when Gerharter, who is the Executive Director of Youth Wellness at United Dairy Industry of Michigan (Milk Means More), started visiting schools and seeing the food they served, she realized her beliefs about school meals were off base.
A Defining Moment
As part of her role at Milk Means More, Gerharter visited a school in Dexter to observe lunch. While talking with the food service director there, she was struck by the care and attention the food service staff took with planning school meals. They worked hard every day to make sure the meals they served met national regulations while also appealing to the students.
“It was awesome,” Gerharter said. “The foodservice team buys produce from local farmers, they plan special activities and meals and they really try to expose kids to different foods. After that visit, I decided I’m never packing a bag lunch again.”
Brown Bag vs. School Meals
Prior to this experience, Gerharter learned about the national nutrition regulations for school meals when she went back to school to earn her Master’s Degree in Nutrition at Eastern Michigan University.
She also met and worked with Dr. Alice Jo Rainville, a researcher and school meals expert, who compared the nutritional content of brown bag lunched from home and school lunch. This research found that school meals actually have overall better nutritional status than a lunch from home.
“It makes sense when you think about it,” said Gerharter. “So many things that go into packed lunches from home are prepackaged, including juice boxes and cookies.”
An Easier and Healthier Option
The challenges with packing lunch is to find foods that kids like and will eat, are food safe and offer some nutrition. It’s not easy to hit all three of these elements and nothing is more frustrating than the waste of time and food when a child brings home an uneaten packed lunch uneaten, said Gerharter.
School lunches provide nutritious foods that meet food safety guidelines and there are at least two options for kids to choose from.
Gerharter’s three children, a son in sixth grade, another son in fifth grade and a daughter in first grade, now all eat school lunch five days a week and like it.
Gerharter makes sure her children always take and drink the milk that is served with school meals. Her kids prefer the chocolate milk option. Knowing that they get the calcium, vitamin D and seven other nutrients in milk is reassuring to Gerharter.
Making an Impression
One day last year, Gerharter’s daughter came home from school talking about the “Made in Michigan” lunch that was served that day, which included an oatmeal made with blueberries and apple grown in Michigan.
“She was really excited about it and I thought it was remarkable something so simple could make such an impression,” said Gerharter.
Want to know more about the nutrition of school meals? Check out our School Parents and Guardians page for resources and information.