- Chris Vangellow’s four children were complaining of bland lunches and small portions.
- When Vangellow posted a picture of the school lunch, it went viral.
- Now he and his son are working to change things. A dietitian says parents should speak up.
When Chris Vangellow’s four children returned to in-person learning after being remote for much of the COVID-19 pandemic, they noticed something different about school lunches. Now that lunches were free for everyone — a federal policy during the 2021-22 school year — the kids reported that portion sizes were getting smaller and smaller, and the food was becoming less and less appetizing.
Vangellow encouraged his kids, ages 13, 14, 15, and 16, to pack snacks from home to supplement school lunch, especially on days they had sports. But he couldn’t let go of what they had said.
“It got me wondering how bad it really was,” he told Insider.
On January 12, Vangellow’s son sent him a picture of school lunch: four scrawny chicken nuggets, white rice, and a handful of dried-looking carrots. Vangellow couldn’t keep quiet, so he posted the picture to his Facebook, and it quickly went viral.
“This was never about my own children not being fed properly by the school. This is about all of the kids,” Vangellow said.
Many kids in his New York town are from low-income households and rely on school meals for the bulk of their nutrition. What’s being offered now isn’t enough to get kids through the school day, let alone sports practices and extracurriculars, Vangellow said.
The ideal school lunch
Elysia Cartlidge, a registered dietitian and owner of Haute and Healthy Living, said that having well-balanced, nutritious meals is critical to kids’ health and success in school.
“Children are growing and developing and therefore require sufficient energy and nutrients in order to fuel their bodies and brains,” she said.
Technically, the lunch that Vangellow posted a picture of meets regulatory requirements because it has a protein, grain, vegetable, and dairy. In practice, it’s a different story.
“I don’t think most adults would want to eat that lunch, let alone children,” she said.
In order to establish healthy eating patterns that last a lifetime, kids need appetizing healthy food. Ideally, a school lunch will be vibrant, tasty, and colorful, with at least three food groups, Cartlidge said. Although research has shown that the nutritional quality of school lunches has improved over the past 10 years, recent changes by the US Department of Agriculture have allowed schools to serve meals that have more sodium and less nutritional value, Cartlidge said.
Solutions for better school meals
After Vangellow’s post, the school district issued a response saying that students are “allowed one more serving of fruits or vegetables and one additional nugget than appeared in the photograph.”
But the district also acknowledged that clearly Vangellow’s message resonated, and parents and students were not satisfied with school-meal options. The district has decided to convene a panel of parents, students, and others to come up with solutions for making school lunches more appealing and appetizing. Vangellow and his son both plan to serve on it.
In addition, Vangellow’s kids have already noticed changes to meals.
“Our kids, as well as friends’ kids, have remarked that in the last few days things have already improved,” Vangellow said. “That makes me think that someone was dropping the ball somewhere, and the attention that this has gained has helped correct those actions.”
Cartlidge recommends that parents check in with their kids and educate themselves on what’s being served at the schools near them. If you think your local school system could do better, she suggests using the resources from the Chef Ann Foundation for organizing locally and advocating better food options in schools.
Vangellow said this experience has shown him that speaking up really can make a difference.
“A single post from one person has some great potential to really stir things up sometimes,” he said.