Thirteen years ago on Saturday Night Live, Chris Farley donned a grotesque apron-and-hairnet getup and pranced around on stage—in the way that only Chris Farley could—while Adam Sandler sang what would become a crowd favorite: “Lunchlady Land.” “Served some reheated Salisbury steak, with a little slice of love. Got no clue what the chicken pot pie is made of,” went the tune. The absurdity of the sketch drove home the point: school lunch is gross.
This fall, that stereotype may get squashed. For the first time in 15 years, school lunches must meet new federal nutrition standards that limit calories and sodium and mandate more servings of fruit and vegetables. Why now? Childhood obesity levels have reached epic proportions. One-third of American children are overweight or obese, putting them at risk for diseases usually reserved for adulthood, such as type 2 diabetes. Schools, meanwhile, feed a lot of kids. Some 32 million partake in the National School Lunch Program, a subsidized service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Consider that kids get up to half of their calories in school, and many kids look to school for the bulk of their food supply. One in every five American kids struggles with hunger, according to Share Our Strength, a nonprofit focused on ending child hunger. Poor nutrition can not only lead to obesity—through sporadic intake of processed foods—it also begets poor school performance and behavior. What’s more, at least one-quarter of 17- to 24-year-olds are too fat to enlist in the military, says the U.S. Department of Defense.