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Healthy School Lunches: Improving the food served to children in schools

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Nutrition for Kids


2002 School Lunch Report Card: Criteria

A Report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

introduction | the criteria | the report card | download report

The Criteria:

Below are the possible points awarded for each category. One point is given for each time the menu includes each of the following items in 15 days of sample lunch menus, plus an additional 20 points for meeting NSLP nutrition guidelines and 5 points for offering non-dairy, calcium-rich beverages.

Low-Fat Vegetable Side Dish:

15

 

Whole or Dried Fruit:

15

 

Meatless Entrée (Hot or Cold):

15

 

Featured Meatless, Dairy-Free, Egg-Free (Vegan) Entrée:

15

 

Vegan Entrée Option:

15

 

TOTAL

75

 

 

+20

for meeting NSLP nutrition guidelines

 

+5

for offering non-dairy, calcium-rich beverages

TOTAL

100

Points

Low-Fat Vegetable Side Dishes: 0 – 15 points

Research indicates that adults who regularly eat vegetables consumed these foods from childhood. Vegetables are packed with vitamin C, beta-carotene, riboflavin, iron, calcium, fiber, and other nutrients. Dark green, leafy vegetables, such as broccoli, collards, kale, mustard and turnip greens, chicory, and bok choy, are especially good sources of important nutrients for children. Dark yellow and orange vegetables, such as carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin, provide the powerful antioxidant beta-carotene. When schools offer tasty, low-fat vegetable side dishes, such as green salads, mixed vegetables, steamed broccoli, corn on the cob, and raw baby carrots with low-fat Italian salad dressing, children will adopt healthy eating habits that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. In this survey, one point was awarded for each day the school district offered a low-fat vegetable side dish. Points were not given for French fries, mashed potatoes, or tater tots.

Whole or Dried Fruit Offered as a Side Dish or Dessert: 0 – 15 points

As with vegetables, research shows that adults who eat fruits in adulthood also consumed them as children. Fruits are rich in fiber, vitamin C, and beta-carotene. Fruit juices contain less fiber than whole fruits. In this survey, one point was awarded for each day the school district offered a whole or dried fruit on the menu. Points were given for applesauce, but not for fruit juice or frozen fruit bars.

Vegetarian and Vegan Entrées and Vegan Options: 0 – 45 points

Nutrition research now emphasizes the importance of fiber, the health risks of cholesterol and fats, and the disease-preventive power of many nutrients found exclusively in plant-based foods. It has also been discovered that the plant kingdom provides excellent sources of the nutrients once associated only with meat and dairy products, namely, protein and calcium. The major killers of Americans—heart disease, cancer, and stroke—have a dramatically lower incidence among people consuming primarily plant-based diets. The condition of overweight, which contributes to a host of other health problems, can also be brought under control by following plant-based diets, even in children. Research shows that vegetarian children grow up to be slimmer and healthier and live longer than their meat-eating friends. It is much easier to build a nutritious diet from vegetarian foods than to attempt to build one from animal products, which contain animal fat, cholesterol, and other substances that growing children certainly do not need. Vegan diets are best of all, as they are free of cholesterol, animal fat, and animal protein, while rich in fiber and numerous health-promoting nutrients.

With the approval of Alternate Protein Products (APPs) in the NSLP, schools are now able to provide children with meatless, cholesterol-free entrées. However, many of the healthier meat substitutes are not available in the commodity food program and cost the schools more to include in their menus.

In this survey, a maximum of 30 points was awarded for the frequency of both vegetarian (meatless) and vegan (meatless, dairy-free, and egg-free) entrées. However, due to the dangers of dairy product consumption (explained below), completely plant-based meals are preferred. When hot vegan entrées appeared on the menu, the school district received one point in the vegetarian entrée category and one point in the vegan entrée category.

Because many schools have not yet begun to feature vegetarian main entrées (but still include some plant-based selections in their menus), the category of “vegan option” was included in this review. Having a daily vegan choice, such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a salad bar, guarantees that children at least have the option to eat something that is meatless and dairy-free for lunch. Ideally, schools will begin offering vegan entrées, such as veggie burgers, bean and rice burritos, and veggie chili, on a regular basis so that children will be presented with nutritious selections, develop tastes for health-promoting foods, and acquire healthy eating habits that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Non-Dairy, Calcium-Rich Beverages: 0 or 5 points

Numerous scientific studies link the consumption of cow’s milk to obesity, anemia, ear infections, constipation, respiratory problems, heart disease, and some cancers. Due to the dangers of dairy product consumption, cow’s milk with added lactase, such as Lactaid® milk, is not a suitable alternative. And, as people of ethnicities other than Caucasian are typically unable to digest dairy protein, relying on dairy products as the sole source of calcium in child nutrition programs favors children of Northern European descent. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians’ 2002 report on lactose intolerance, 60 to 80 percent of blacks, 50 to 80 percent of Hispanics, 80 to 100 percent of American Indians, 95 to 100 percent of Asians, and 6 to 22 percent of American whites are lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance, which is generally apparent by age three, causes flatulence, cramping, diarrhea, and bloating after eating dairy products in some individuals. Unfortunately, calcium-fortified juices are more expensive for school districts than the unfortified versions. Therefore, the USDA should mandate non-dairy, calcium-fortified beverages in child nutrition programs so that milk and other dairy products are not the only source of calcium available in school lunches.

Despite the extra expense, many school districts are already offering calcium-fortified juices in their school lunch programs. In this review, PCRM awarded 5 extra points to school districts that provide calcium-rich juices to students on a daily basis.

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