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

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Nutrition for Kids


2007 School Lunch Report Card

A Report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

Background | Criteria | Report Card | download report

Overweight and obesity, and the diseases that accompany them, have become epidemics in the United States. A recent report published by a research team at Johns Hopkins University predicts that if current trends continue, by the year 2015, 75 percent of all Americans, including 24 percent of all children and adolescents, will be overweight or obese. While there may be multiple reasons for these problems, some societal factors play a particularly significant role. School lunch is one of these.

Because school lunches have an important influence on childhood health, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) evaluates the meals served in the National School Lunch Program each year. Healthful lunches rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and other vegetarian foods will not only nourish children, but help them maintain normal body weights, develop good lifelong eating habits, and reduce the risk of chronic disease later in life.

For this year’s report, PCRM analyzed the lunches served in 22 of the nation’s largest elementary school districts and evaluated the districts on their efforts to educate children about good nutrition. The results are summarized on the report card.

PCRM’s team of dietitians graded schools based on criteria in three major categories: Obesity and Chronic Disease Prevention, Health Promotion and Nutrition Adequacy, and Nutrition Initiatives. The main objective was to determine whether foods served in schools are truly promoting the health of all children.

The results show that some schools are doing an excellent job, having incorporated more plant-based entrées, seasonal fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into menus than in years past. Too many others are failing, offering few, if any, healthful selections. Some schools have launched nutrition education programs to promote healthy eating habits, but have not changed their menus accordingly.

Background

Established in 1946 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is one of five federally funded child nutrition programs that provide meals, snacks, and other food to children. All of these programs play an important role in contributing to food security among low-income families while also feeding a large number of all children. The NSLP serves approximately 30 million lunches a day; approximately 100,000 schools participate. The program cost $8.2 billion in 2006.

Schools participating in the NSLP 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. They are also required to offer free or reduced-price lunches for eligible children. Each day, approximately 17.5 million students receive a free or reduced-price school lunch.

Unfortunately, a multitude of factors can have a negative influence on what food service directors end up serving for lunch. These include financial constraints and outdated federal requirements that permit schools to serve unhealthful foods.

One of the most significant roadblocks to change is the USDA’s commodity system. Each year, the USDA purchases hundreds of millions of pounds of pork, beef, and other animal products, primarily as an economic benefit to agricultural interests, and donates them to the NSLP and other food assistance programs. Unfortunately, these “entitlement foods” are almost all unhealthful foods. This system makes it easy and inexpensive for food service directors to choose chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and other high-cholesterol, high-fat foods.

Despite these challenges, progress is being made in some areas. For example, four states—California, Florida, Hawaii, and New York—have instituted healthful school lunch resolutions 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 healthful plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.

PCRM’s Healthy School Lunch Campaign

PCRM’s Healthy School Lunch Campaign was established in 2001 to help protect children’s health and to reduce childhood obesity rates by increasing the availability of healthful plant-based foods in schools.

Through the annual school lunch review, the annual Golden Carrot Awards for innovation in food service, and pilot projects in individual school systems, 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.

Making the Grade

To earn a high grade on PCRM’s School Lunch Report Card, school districts must go above and beyond USDA requirements, which many nutrition experts believe are inadequate. The guidelines permit high-fat, high-cholesterol foods to be regularly featured in school lunches and do not require school districts to serve any plant-based meals or, in most cases, to offer nondairy beverages. Nor do the guidelines require food service staff to offer nutrition education or any other type of programs to promote healthful eating. (A new USDA wellness initiative does require schools to provide goals for nutrition education but it stops short of requiring the schools to actually offer any programs.)

Given the prevalence of obesity among children and adults, it is clear that schools should meet nutrition standards that are more stringent than those set by the USDA. That is why PCRM has developed a new grading system. Districts that score well on this report card deserve special recognition.

To earn a perfect score, school districts must meet USDA nutrition requirements, and they must also serve a nondairy, vegetarian (vegan) entrée daily, offer 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 healthful eating habits. Innovative programs include farm-to-school programs, cafeteria school gardens, farmers’ market salad bar programs, and other inventive ways to encourage the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

School Lunch Trends

Every year, PCRM documents the changes and improvements—or lack thereof—in the types of foods offered in schools. Unfortunately, too many school districts continue to emphasize less-than-healthful choices—hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and other high-fat, high-cholesterol foods.

The good news is that since PCRM began compiling these reports in 2001, there has been an increase in the availability of healthful vegetarian and vegan entrées in some school districts. This year, PCRM dietitians noted that 64 percent of the school districts regularly feature vegan selections on their menus or offer them upon request.

PCRM dietitians also found that 73 percent of the school districts now offer an alternative to dairy milk—bottled water, juice, or soy milk. (Fifty-five percent offer the alternative for free; 18 percent made it available for purchase.) In 2006, 67 percent of the districts offered an alternative for free or for purchase.

Past scores for individual districts are also a good indication of the positive trend among some schools. San Diego Unified School District, for example, earned a C- in 2003; a B- in 2004, and an A- both in 2006 and this year. Miami-Dade County Public Schools received a C in 2002, but earned a B+ this year. And Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland steadily climbed from a C- in 2004 to a B in 2006 to a B+ in 2007.

PCRM dietitians have also noted that, in some school districts, the variety of healthful choices is expanding to some degree. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is an acceptable vegan option that PCRM encourages all schools to offer, but it’s good to see some food service staff getting more creative. Tasty-sounding new dishes spotted this year include Italian pasta fagioli, veggie burger wraps, and build-your-own bean burritos.

Unfortunately, even the school districts that offer healthful options continue to serve them alongside unhealthful foods, which makes it less likely that children will make a wise choice.

Most Improved

The most improved school district this year is Oakland Unified School District in California. Its score rose from a C in 2006 to a B this year.

The district has expanded its healthful offerings, including a vegetarian Griller’s Prime burger and a peanut butter and jelly entrée, both of which are clearly labeled on the menu as vegetarian. Oakland also gained points by increasing the number of fresh fruit and low-fat vegetable side options available each day.

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