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

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Nutrition for Kids


2008 School Lunch Report Card: Criteria

Background | Criteria | Report Card | download report

 

The Criteria

Review Process
PCRM evaluated surveys completed by food service directors from 20 school districts in the United States. Many are among the 100-largest districts. School districts from all regions of the country participated: Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Southwest, and West. PCRM relied on school districts to accurately complete the survey and provide valid information about their menus and nutrition education programs, and a team of PCRM dietitians worked to verify this information.

Criteria and Grading System
This year’s report looked at two essential categories for children’s nutrition in schools:

  • obesity and chronic disease prevention
  • nutrition and healthy eating initiatives


Each category includes subcategories, as described below, to measure different aspects of nutrition, health promotion, and disease prevention.

Obesity and Chronic Disease Prevention
This category consists of two major components. First, do districts meet, at minimum, the USDA requirements that the average meal over a five-day school week contains no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat? Second, what is the availability of healthful vegetarian entrées? Both are essential components of a healthy diet to prevent obesity and disease.

In theory, schools are required to meet USDA guidelines on fat and saturated fat; however, a government study completed in 2003 found that many school districts were not in compliance with these guidelines. Therefore, PCRM included this question to measure compliance.

Providing low-fat, cholesterol-free vegetarian entrées is a key step in obesity and disease prevention. Vegetarian entrées tend to be lower in calories and fat and higher in fiber than meat-based dishes. Scientific evidence clearly supports the consumption of a plant-based diet for health promotion. Research shows that people following healthful vegetarian diets are less likely to be overweight or obese and have a reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, and some cancers.

Numerous studies have substantiated the health risks of cholesterol and fat. Therefore, it is especially important that schools provide plant-based entrées that are low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Most vegetarian, egg-free, dairy-free (vegan) entrées are naturally low in fat and cholesterol-free.

When low-fat, cholesterol-free entrées are offered regularly to students, they are more likely to choose these healthful options and develop good eating habits. PCRM awarded schools 15 points for having a vegetarian entrée option available each day, 10 points for having one at least three times a week, and five points if at least one vegetarian option was available every week. Schools received another two points for each day of the week an egg-free, dairy-free (vegan) option was available and, to reward variety, received another point for each unique egg-free, dairy-free entrée served.

Obesity and Chronic Disease Prevention: 55 points

Subcategory

Data Source

Total Points

Formula

Did the district meet USDA National School Lunch Program nutrition requirements?

School district menu nutrition analysis

25 points

Average daily meal must contain: Fat <30% of calories Saturated fat <10% of calories

Does the district offer healthful vegetarian entrée options?

Recent lunch menu (five-day period)

15 points

  • Vegetarian entrée option available five days a week: 15 points
  • Vegetarian entrée option at least three days per week: 10 points
  • Vegetarian entrée option at least once a week: 5 points
  • Vegetarian entrée option available rarely or never: 0 points

What is the availability of healthful egg-free, dairy-free entrées?

Recent lunch menu

10 points

Every day an egg-free, dairy-free entrée option is available during a five-day week: 2 points per day

Is there a variety of healthful egg-free, dairy-free options?

Recent lunch menu

5 points

Each different vegan option: 1 point

Nutrition and Healthy Eating Initiatives: 45 points
This category evaluates whether lunch menus reflect current nutrition recommendations to meet students’ needs and whether they provide dietary options and education that encourage good health.

First, lunches were evaluated to see if the foods offered contained essential vitamins and minerals and adequate fiber. To do this, PCRM dietitians asked how many fresh fruit and low-fat vegetable side dishes are available during any given five-day week. The report also looks at the availability of nondairy beverages, which can help meet the needs of children with lactose intolerance or milk allergies.

PCRM dietitians also sought to determine whether nutrition education is provided through the food service department, if the cafeteria specifically promotes the consumption of plant foods, and what other innovative programs the school provides. In addition to providing healthful food choices, schools must also help students understand the consequences of food choices and encourage them to make nutritious decisions.

Fruits and vegetables. To provide nutritionally adequate meals, schools must include low-fat vegetable side dishes and fresh fruit. Almost all fruits and vegetables are low in calories and fat, and they provide many important nutrients, including vitamin C, beta-carotene, riboflavin, iron, calcium, and fiber. Children who grow up eating fruits and vegetables tend to develop a taste for these foods and enjoy them as adults. Schools should offer a variety of options such as steamed vegetables, baby carrots, seasoned spinach, melons, apples, and strawberries.

Nondairy beverages. Nondairy beverages should be widely available in schools. Many children are lactose intolerant or allergic to milk, and others avoid milk for other reasons, such as taste, religious or ethical reasons, or other health needs. Dairy milk is also the largest source of artery-clogging saturated fat in children's diets, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The USDA does not require schools to offer an alternative to dairy milk, but an increasing number of schools are doing so. PCRM’s report card recognizes schools for their attention to student needs by giving them 10 points for any healthy nondairy beverage available at no extra cost to students and five points if nondairy beverages are available to purchase à la carte.

Nutrition education. Adults establish their eating habits in childhood. Nutrition education in both the cafeteria and classroom helps students understand the relationship between their food choices and good health. Because many children today do not consume the recommended amount of plant-based foods, education that specifically focuses on the health benefits of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and vegetarian options is important. Six points were given to all schools whose food service department participated in nutrition education.

Labeling of vegetarian foods. The school menu can also be a valuable tool for promoting healthful foods. Since a growing number of students look for vegetarian entrée options, these items should be clearly marked on menus and offered as main entrée choices.

Innovative food programs. Many schools have initiated programs that help children learn more about how healthful foods are produced and cooked. Examples include school gardens, cooking classes, farm-to-school programs, and taste-testing promotions. Such programs seem to make students more likely to choose healthful food options in the lunch line.

Nutrition and Healthy Eating Initiatives: 45 points

Subcategory

Data Source

Total Points

Formula

What is the availability of healthy, low-fat vegetable side dishes over a five-day period?

Recent lunch menu

10 points

Fresh vegetable, steamed or low-fat vegetable dish (3 grams fat or less per serving): 2 points per day

How many fresh fruits does the district offer over a five-day period?

Recent lunch menu

10 points

Fresh fruit: 2 points per day

Is a healthful nondairy beverage available daily?

Survey completed by school districts

10 points

  • Nondairy beverage available at no cost: 10 points
  • Nondairy beverage available for purchase à la carte: 5 points
  • No additional beverages available or available only with a parent or physician note: 0 points

Labeling of vegetarian/vegan options                                       

Recent lunch menu

3 points

Vegetarian/vegan options clearly labeled on menu

Nutrition education in cafeteria or through food service department with specific reference to plant foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains)

Survey completed by school districts

6 points

 

Innovative food programs

Survey completed by school districts

6 points

Participation in any of the following: School garden, salad bar, farm-to-school program, cooking classes, other

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