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

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2012 PCRM School Lunch Report Card: Criteria

A Report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
October 2012

Background | Criteria | Report Card | download report

The Criteria

Review Process

PCRM evaluated surveys completed by food service directors from 22 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, in 2007, the USDA’s analysis of school food showed that almost all schools served too much saturated fat to comply with the government’s requirements. 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. Processed meats such as hot dogs and pepperoni are another danger. They increase colorectal cancer risk, according to a large number of studies, as well as the risk for diabetes and early death. Most vegetarian, egg-free, dairy-free (vegan) entrées are naturally low in fat. They are also cholesterol-free and free of processed meats.

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 20 points for having a vegetarian entrée option available each day, 15 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 point 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) 20 points Vegetarian entrée option available five days a week: 20 points
Vegetarian entrée option at least three days per week: 15 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 5 points Every day an egg-free, dairy-free entrée option is available during a five-day week: 1 point 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, adequate fiber, and lower fat. 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. Ounce for ounce, skim milk offers almost the same calorie load as soda plus 5 milligrams of cholesterol per serving. Several studies also show that milk does not promote bone health or prevent fractures. 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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