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The Hazzards of School Lunches (and what PCRM is doing about them)

More and more children are gaining excess weight. According to a recent report in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, nearly half the children in North America will be overweight or obese by 2010. Along with those extra pounds come an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and some forms of cancer later in life. According to a report in The New England Journal of Medicine, today’s youth may be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

Healthful diets rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and other vegetarian foods help children stay healthy and trim. Unfortunately, many kids don’t always have the chance to eat healthful meals—at least not during the school day. The meaty, cheesy fare many schools serve is fanning the flames of the obesity epidemic.

That’s why PCRM is working to improve school lunches. PCRM tracks school policies across the country and makes suggestions for improvements, rewards innovative food service professionals, provides nutrition resources for parents and schools, and promotes changes to federal nutrition policy to make healthful food more accessible.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

Established in 1946 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National School Lunch Program is one of five federally funded child nutrition programs that provide meals, snacks, and other food to children. The $8 billion program serves approximately 30 million lunches a day in about 100,000 schools.

Schools participating in the program receive cash subsidies and commodity foods for each meal served and bonus commodities, as they are available from agricultural surplus. In return, schools must serve lunches that meet federal nutrition requirements, which require that meals contain no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat.

At least, that’s what is supposed to happen. In reality, many food service directors find themselves serving sausage pizza, Salisbury steak, and cheeseburgers. The result is that 80 percent of schools violate the USDA’s limits on fat in their foods.

What’s going on? Part of the problem is the USDA’s commodity system purchases hundreds of millions of pounds of pork, beef, and other animal products as a means of removing surpluses and boosting agricultural profits. It then dumps these products on schools. This system makes it hard for food service directors to choose healthier foods when chicken nuggets and hot dogs are essentially free.

A second problem is subsidies. Between 1995 and 2004, nearly three-quarters of the entire U.S. expenditure for agricultural subsidies—$62 billion—went to feed crops and direct aid supporting meat and dairy production. Less than 1 percent went to subsidizing fruit and vegetable production. As a result, meat and dairy products are less expensive to produce, giving them an edge in the marketplace.

These programs are part of the Farm Bill. As this legislation came up for renewal in late 2007, PCRM and its supporters made sure these issues were at the forefront of discussion in newspapers, on television, and on the Senate floor.

Hundreds of physicians petitioned Congress for reform. Major newspapers across the country featured letters to the editor and opinion pieces by PCRM experts. Several celebrity members—including Alec Baldwin, Bill Maher, Kevin Nealon, Alicia Silverstone, Peter Max, and Moby—made Congress and the public aware that the Farm Bill needs to be reformed.

PCRM’s television advertisement, which spoofed Sen. Larry Craig’s airport bathroom arrest, was seen by viewers across the country and was discussed on television news programs, as well as in The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In October, Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) introduced the FRESH Amendment, a bill that would reduce federal subsidies that fund foods high in fat, cholesterol, and sugar and give a boost to fruits and vegetables. More than 1,000 PCRM members called or e-mailed their senators and asked them to support this healthy change to the Farm Bill.

A Report Card for School Lunches

PCRM’s School Lunch Report Card highlights what is actually being served in some of the nation’s largest school districts, and each year the report card is widely covered by the press and discussed by the schools themselves.

To score well, a school must not only meet the USDA nutrition requirements, but also serve a vegetarian, preferably nondairy, main dish daily, offer a variety of fresh or low-fat vegetable side dishes and fresh fruits, make a nondairy beverage available, and provide nutrition education in the cafeteria and through other programs.

While too many school districts continue to emphasize less-than-healthful choices, the availability of healthful vegetarian and vegan entrées is increasing. This year, PCRM dietitians noted that 64 percent of the school districts regularly feature vegan selections on their menus or offer them upon request.

In 2007, Florida’s Pinellas County Schools received top marks, with menus that regularly include vegetarian items, such as black beans and rice, vegetarian chili, a veggie burger wrap sandwich, and a variety of vegan salads. Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, and San Diego Unified School District all also scored highly.

The Golden Carrot

To reward food service professionals who are doing an exceptional job of improving the healthfulness of school lunches, PCRM introduced the Golden Carrot Awards in 2004.

2007 Golden Carrot WinnersIn 2007, top honors were shared by the head chefs at two Chicago charter schools: Stuart Spears of the Betty Shabazz International Charter School and Glendora Green of Barbara Sizemore Academy. All foods served at both schools, which are run by the same organization, are vegetarian, and vegan options are offered daily. Daily offerings include veggie gumbo with tofu, pinto beans and rice with collards and corn bread, “steak” sandwiches, jerk tofu, curry tofu with noodles, and vegetarian soups. Soy and rice milk and juice are available at no additional cost, and fresh fruit and a garden salad are provided daily. The vegetarian items are discussed as part of the schoolwide science and health curricula. 

Second-place prizes went to nutritionists, teachers, and food service professionals in Seattle; Berkeley, Calif.; Cambridge, Mass.; and Wayne, Pa. Ann Cooper, nutrition director at the Berkeley Unified School District, offers vegetarian main courses every day, and every school in the district has a salad bar. Dana Rigato is the food service director of Seattle’s Jewish Day School, where all lunches are vegetarian: Students enjoy veggie burgers, vegetarian “chicken” nuggets, homemade soups, and a full salad bar. Valley Forge Middle School guidance counselor Sheri Demaris and family consumer science teacher Lisa Norley run an innovative program in Wayne, Pa., in which students learn to prepare nutritious vegan meals. Dawn Olcott, a nutritionist who works with Cambridge Public Schools, helped her district offer more fruits, vegetables, and vegetarian meals.

Resources for Schools and Parents

School lunch offerings have slowly improved over the last several years, but most schools have a long way to go. PCRM offers resources for parents and schools at, including helpful links, book titles, and downloadable booklets and fact sheets. And more nutrition tips and healthful recipes for students, parents, and the whole family are available at


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