When American children walk into school lunch rooms wafting with the aroma of fried foods and sweet treats, they fill millions of lunch trays with processed, commercially prepared chicken nuggets, pizzas, fries and sugary drinks. This year, the National School Lunch Program received a revolutionary makeover with new nutrition standards mandated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and championed by Michelle Obama. The objective is to bring more nutritional value to lunch rooms and battle the issue of childhood obesity.

Out of 55 million children in the US, 30% are overweight and 17% are classified as obese, putting future generations at risk of diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to the 2011 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Though 32 million American children buy—or receive federally subsidized hot lunches—only 25% of elementary schools and 8% of high schools meet the USDA’s nutritional standards requirements.

“The USDA’s revised School Lunch Program is based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that provides a host of scientific and medical information about our nutrition,” said Ben Senauer, professor of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota who studies economic trends in federal school lunch programs. He explains that the USDA’s enhanced plan progressively requires schools to increase “the consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grain while controlling portions and reducing calorie-dense foods, sodium and saturated fats” over the next few years.

Most Islamic schools serve hot lunches and have a stake in the USDA’s new guidelines according to Karen Keyworth, Education Director at the Islamic Schools League of America. “As stewards of the earth,’ being green is a core value for Muslims so administration and teachers of Islamic schools are particularly concerned about nutrition,” she said. For instance, the New Horizons Islamic School (NHS) in Pasadena, California serves halal hot lunches seeking healthy alternatives to kids’ favorite foods by offering salads, subs and Chinese food with fresh vegetables.

Not all meals served by NHS are wholesome as they also cater two weekly meals from halal KFC and Pizza Hut. For Engy Gawish whose fourth grader, Omar Khalid, attends NHS, balance is the key. She teaches healthy habits while allowing occasional indulgences. “Every day, I pack a healthy lunch but Omar has hot lunch once a week, catered in the school by a halal KFC. Teaching by example, we don’t buy soda for the home.”

Pasadena falls under the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) which has received accolades for an innovative school lunch program that serves almost 700,000 meals a day in 1000 locations to 65% of the district’s students. Back in 2006, the first step was to completely eliminate carbonated beverages, flavored milk and candy from its schools.

LAUSD has become a standards trendsetter since they revised menus a year ago. Food services director Dennis Barrett explained that they have created an ethnically diverse, low-fat, plant-based and enriched whole-grains menu with students enjoying Creole stew, quinoa salad, hummus, black-eyed peas, chicken satay, chipotle turkey carnitas and vegetable curry.

“We do not serve carnival food like doughnuts, pizza and chicken nuggets. As a nation we need to foster better eating habits in our future generations,” stated Barett, “because government standards are just guidelines.” Initially some students rejected these healthy changes and LAUSD sought to modify the menus with the inclusion of burgers made from all natural ground beef. Despite challenges, the program has been gaining traction with celebrities like actress Natalie Portman, parents groups and many students advocating for it.

LAUSD school district persisted in raising the health bar and eliminated artificial dyes like red food color, palm oils from their food menu and decreased sodium to 1100 mg per meal. Barrett concluded that childhood obesity is caused by unwholesome food choices and lack of activity making LAUSD go “beyond federally provided hot lunches” and educate students about “holistic approaches” to healthy lifestyles.

NHS Pasadena also strives for that holistic approach. They’ve added “essential values of fitness and good nutrition” to their curriculum with their Nature’s Playground garden where children plant their own vegetables to learn that food comes from the earth—not from vending machines. Amira Al-Sarraf, Head of NHS comments that students “reap their harvest and enjoy a delicious salad of lettuce, radishes, and kale so the sheer novelty of the garden inspires them to try what they normally don’t eat.” She feels that getting to the origins of food gives children an organic, life-long connection to the foods they eat.

Across the country in Monmouth Junction, NJ, busy working mother Dr. Sumeera Baig packs a balanced lunch for her three children who go to Noor-ul-Iman School, where “the school caters food from limited halal vendors.” A sample lunch Baig packs for her children includes, “homemade Moroccan soup for Noor, bagel for Rehan, and halal chicken quesadillas for Zainab—fruit for each child—and yes, one unhealthy snack.” Baig favors healthier choices but says they are not readily available at school or convenient outside and lamented that “children are picky about what they eat.”

Yes, children are notoriously picky eaters and this is a challenge for many school lunch program implementations. “You cannot pull the carpet from under kids’ feet and say ‘no more fries, eat salad’; there is a lot of marketing, communications and dialogue involved as we empower students to be part of the change,” observed Roger Kipp, the Food Services Director of Norwood Schools in Ohio. Kipp executed an outreach program through workshops and presentations for students, parents and his community to prepare them for a lunchroom sans fast food fare.

Kipp has overhauled Norwood School district’s nutrition program so successfully, it already meets the USDA’s 2015 projected nutritional standards. “We eliminated vending machines; got rid of garbage a La carte menu options; removed sugary beverages, desserts and fried foods; and abolished high school Snack Shacks.” This encouraged students to accept the healthier food the district offered and even Kipp—practicing what he preaches—lost 27 pounds.

Unlike LAUSD, NHS and Norwood, most schools struggle to implement the new lunch plans amidst federal budget cuts and more pressing issues. The new lunch plan is expected to improve the long-term health of children. However it is not a cure-all, cautions Susan Levin a nutrition educator at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). “It feels like subterfuge when schools say they have met the USDA’s wholegrain requirements by a whole-grain pizza crust smothered with meat and cheese,” Levin stated. “We are directly damaging a generation by giving them sugared sodas and fried corndogs instead of complex foods like quinoa, barley, brown rice, legumes and lentils.”

Back at the University of Minnesota, Senauer concurred saying that the USDA’s new regulations are just paper mandates that become viable programs “only if run by passionate, progressive and competent food directors” citing the example of Jean Ronnei who he says has been making “food from scratch” in Saint Paul, Minnesota’s public schools since 2005. Senauer explained that for a school lunch program to work, taste has to be accommodated which Ronnei delivers. “I ate a pizza in a St. Paul High school made with whole-grains, low-fat cheese loaded with vegetables. Students loved it, so it puts the USDA’s plan in action,” said Senauer.

Nutritionist Samina Shah from Newport Beach, California said that her daughter’s Irvine High School instituted salad bars, however as students can eat from vending machines or fast food restaurants outside, she has to be extra vigilant about nutrition at home.

Levin would agree with Shah’s approach. “Better lunch programs improve the overall health picture but nutritional values start at the home, extend to the school and become lifelong choices.”

About the Writer: Sadia Ashraf is a writer, content strategist and communications specialist who has spearheaded international publicity campaigns, including those as Director Outreach, Central Asia Institute and Public Relations Manager, Friends of Public Arts.