'Squishy squash': Students post yucky (and yummy) school lunches

Gross and unappetizing school lunches were a popular punch line on kids’ TV shows like “You Can’t Do That on Television.” But for many kids around America, unhealthy school lunches are real – and cause problems more serious than just an upset stomach.

Last year the Department of Agriculture passed new guidelines for the health content of school lunches, but not every school has been following them. The government estimates that two-thirds of U.S. school meals exceed the recommended fat content, and that most go over the sodium allowance as well. For observers such as Michelle Obama, who has made childhood obesity a signature issue as first lady, there is deep cause for concern.

Fortunately, somebody is doing something about it. In fact, DoSomething.org is the name of the nonprofit group that launched a lighthearted website called Fed Up that has teens across the country posting pictures of their school lunches along with bleakly funny captions (“refried puke and fajita cat food,” anyone?).

Site visitors can vote “Eat It” or “Toss It” on each photo through Nov. 15. DoSomething.org will compile the data into a map that they say will display "the real state of school lunch across the nation," and distribute it to school districts and nutrition advocates.

Farah Sheikh, who runs Fed Up, told TODAY.com that the project started after a study tried to determine why kids dropped out of school. “The obvious reasons, like bad grades and needing to support their families with a job, came up, but we started realizing that nutrition in school plays a huge role in ability to perform,” she explained. “Have you ever eaten a fried food lunch and felt the effects afterwards? For some students, they have no choice but to feel that way after a meal.”

The Fed Up submissions range from tasty (a homemade bento box) to downright unappetizing (a slice of pizza with hair on it). Between posts, there are nutritional tidbits designed to get students to think more carefully about what they eat and why. There are also links to infographics like The Lunch Line, which shows how school lunches have changed over history and helps students press their schools for healthier eating options.

“Young people need to be part of the conversation about school lunch,” Sheikh said. “We are an organization for young people to express what they care about and take action on that cause. The fact that a student can upload a picture of their ‘meatloaf mess,’ get tips for starting a conversation with their nutrition director, and download an action guide that gives them step-by-step instructions for creating real change in their cafeteria – that's pretty empowering for a 15-year-old.”

Sheikh reports that the blog has gotten almost 2,000 photo submissions since launching just over a week ago, along with more than 30,000 votes cast on the various lunches. But the data isn’t just about funny picture captions.

“We've learned that young people care,” Sheikh says. “They want to see change, and up until now haven't known how to voice their opinions.”


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