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

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Nutrition for Kids


2006 School Lunch Report Card: Background

A Report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

background | the criteria | the report card | Download this fact sheet

As children enter school this fall, they will learn the importance of math, science, and English. But high juvenile obesity rates and an epidemic of type 2 diabetes in children highlight the need for school lunchrooms to teach another crucial lesson: Low-fat vegetarian lunches rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains can help young people maintain healthy body weights and reduce the risk of chronic disease later in life.

Because the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) plays an important role in developing children’s eating habits, dietitians with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) conducted a review of the food served in school lunchrooms. This report, the fifth completed by PCRM, examines 18 major school districts across the country and also evaluates schools’ efforts to encourage the consumption of healthy foods and educate students about nutrition. The results are summarized in a report card on page 9.

PCRM graded schools based on criteria in three major categories: Obesity and Chronic Disease Prevention, Health Promotion and Nutrition Adequacy, and Nutrition Initiatives. This year, the grading system has been updated and simplified, but the goal remains the same: to determine whether foods served in schools are promoting the health of all children. The results demonstrate that school lunches are gradually improving, but many school districts are putting children’s health at risk by serving unhealthful food.

Background

The NSLP was established in 1946 to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children by serving free and low-cost nutritionally balanced meals to students each day. Its secondary purpose was to encourage the consumption of domestic agricultural commodities. The Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the program at the federal level. Today, the program exists in more than 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and serves lunches to more than 28 million children each school day. Schools participating in the NSLP receive cash subsidies, donated commodities, and free bonus commodities for each meal served. In return, schools are supposed to serve lunches that meet federal nutrition requirements.

In recent years, childhood obesity has become a serious and growing public health problem. In 2010, nearly half the children in North America will be overweight or obese, according to a recent report in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity. Obesity is associated with a wide range of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, some forms of cancer, gallbladder disease, asthma, and sleep apnea. All of these conditions are linked to poor dietary habits such as the over-consumption of calories, fat, cholesterol, salt, and sugar.

These alarming statistics and negative health trends are beginning to prompt change in the school nutrition environment. Four states—California, Florida, Hawaii, and New York—have healthy school lunch resolutions in place that aim to combat the obesity epidemic. These resolutions recommend that vegetarian entrée options be served daily and urge schools to place an increased emphasis on healthy plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.

The USDA has also taken some steps to increase children’s access to healthful foods. The USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program now provides $9 million a year to schools in eight states and three Indian Tribal Organizations to encourage increased consumption of fruits and vegetables as snacks. Participating schools say the program is very successful, and its funding should be increased. The USDA has also implemented the Team Nutrition program, which educates food service staff about preparing healthy foods. While these positive initiatives are limited in scope, they do offer a glimpse of what the USDA could accomplish if it shifted its focus to promoting the health of all children.

PCRM’s Healthy School Lunch Campaign

PCRM’s Healthy School Lunch Campaign was established to protect children’s health and reduce childhood obesity rates by increasing the availability of healthy plant-based foods in schools. To that end, PCRM encourages lawmakers, the USDA, and school districts to achieve the Healthy School Lunch Campaign goal of ensuring that all foods served promote the health of all children.  

Abundant scientific evidence supports the consumption of plant-based diets for health promotion. Individuals following healthy plant-based diets are less likely to be overweight or obese, and they have a reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, and some cancers. Moreover, studies show that vegetarian teens have higher intakes of essential vitamins and minerals.

Roadblocks to Health

School districts face numerous challenges when it comes to serving healthy foods and offering nutrition education. These problems include a lack of financial and programmatic support from the USDA and lawmakers, as well as a lack of social support for healthy eating habits from corporate interests and, at times, families and communities.

The Commodity Foods Contradiction
The USDA commodity system suffers from a serious conflict of interest. The USDA pledges to provide nutritious meals for school children, yet the department must also support food industries, including those that produce foods that contribute to obesity, heart disease, and cancer. The USDA buys hundreds of millions of pounds of excess beef, pork, milk, and other high-fat meat and dairy products to bolster dropping prices. 

State processing programs allow school districts to contract with commercial food processors to convert raw USDA commodities into more convenient, reprocessed ready-to-use end products. Products high in saturated fat and cholesterol constitute most of the foods offered through this program. The top reprocessed items include cooked beef and pork patties and links, chicken nuggets, chicken patties and roasted pieces, turkey hot dogs, bologna, and pizza. Because of the way in which the school lunch program is structured, it can cost a school district more than twice as much to provide a high-fiber, low-fat veggie burger instead of a high-fat, zero-fiber hamburger.

Inflexible Menu Planning
The USDA’s Traditional Food Based Menu Planning Approach is an inflexible system that makes it more difficult for schools to offer meat alternatives and some other healthful foods. As an alternative, the department does allow schools to use the Nutrient Standard Menu Planning Approach. Schools that use the nutrient-based menu planning system are allowed more creativity and flexibility in menu planning and are able to serve a variety of healthy foods. However, to employ this alternative, schools must use expensive computer software to conduct nutritional analyses.

Lack of Accountability
Although federal law requires schools to ensure that menus meet the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, this mandate is not well enforced. In fact, the federal government’s most recent School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study found that an astonishing 80 percent of schools serve too much fatty food to comply with federal guidelines. Even schools that comply with USDA regulations still offer more fat than should be found in a healthy diet. A wide range of research has found that low-fat diets offer important health benefits, including weight control and cholesterol reduction.

Making the Grade

PCRM recognizes school districts that go above and beyond USDA requirements. The USDA gives schools modest nutrition goals that many nutrition experts believe are inadequate, in part because they downplay the fact that plant-based foods are crucial for health. Abundant evidence shows that schools should meet higher standards for optimum health. Therefore, PCRM grades districts based on more meaningful criteria. School districts are not yet required by the USDA to serve plant-based meals, offer nondairy beverages, or develop innovative nutrition programs. Districts that score well in these areas deserve special recognition.

The Top of the Class
To earn a perfect score, school districts must meet USDA nutrition requirements, and they must also serve a nondairy vegetarian (vegan) entrée daily, a variety of fresh or low-fat vegetable side dishes and fresh fruits daily, make a nondairy beverage available to all students, and provide nutrition education in the cafeteria, as well as offer programs that promote healthy eating. Innovative programs include farm-to-school programs, cafeteria school gardens, farmer’s market salad bar programs, and other inventive ways to encourage the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

Encouraging Trends
Every year, PCRM documents improvements in the types of foods offered in schools. Despite the many barriers to serving healthy vegetarian and vegan entrées in elementary schools, several districts have made these items more available. This year, an impressive 13 of the 18 districts surveyed had a vegan option at least once within two weeks. Twelve of these districts had vegan selections on the menu regularly or available daily upon request.

Most Improved Player
This year, Fairfax County in Virginia wins most improved district, coming out on the top of the list with an A. Fairfax County increased its score from a B in 2004 by increasing the number of vegan entrées offered and featuring at least one vegan entrée daily instead of once a week. Lunches also include a choice of many different healthy fruit and vegetable sides, and students have the opportunity to purchase soymilk. Fairfax County has done an excellent job of improving the healthfulness of its lunches.

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