The Fairfax County Public School District is the 14th largest district in the country, with more than 162,000 students. The review examined 10 days of the August 2004 elementary school menu and nutrient data from the district’s September 2004 nutrient analysis.
The Fairfax County elementary lunch selections and nutrition programs achieved the highest score of any district reviewed this year. Once a week, children can choose a featured vegan entrée such as a veggie burger or spaghetti and breadstick with marinara sauce. A variety of fresh fruits and vegetables are available daily, and calcium-fortified juices are available for children who do not drink dairy milk. This year, the county will offer Silk soymilk upon request as an à la carte item.
Nutrition education programs and vending machine policies in the Fairfax County elementary schools are geared to promoting healthy eating habits. The district’s food and nutrition services department uses classroom time to educate K-6 students on the importance of healthy food choices and exercise. By getting involved in hands-on food preparation, doing tasting activity puzzles, and taking home nutrition activities for the family, children learn the value of nutrition right from the start. Moreover, only a third of the county’s elementary schools have vending machines, and these offer only juice and water.
Fairfax can improve its score by increasing the frequency of featured vegan entrée selections; this will raise the fiber content and lower the cholesterol content of the lunch menus.
The San Diego Unified School District is the 17th largest district in the country, with more than 140,000 students. The review looked at 10 days of the district’s fall 2004 elementary school menu and nutrient data from this menu.
The San Diego elementary lunch and nutrition programs have improved significantly in the last few years. By the end of school year 2003-2004, all 130 elementary schools had full salad and fruit bars, and the fall 2004 menu features vegan entrées three days a week, including a bean burrito, a loaded baked potato, and a veggie burger. The food service director is dedicated to providing healthy options that go well beyond the USDA requirements and is currently looking into providing vanilla and chocolate soymilk, vegan sloppy joes, and cholesterol-free veggie hot dogs in the elementary schools. Providing these additional options will likely give the San Diego school district an “A” in the future.
Nutrition education in the San Diego schools is supplemented with a salad bar and fruit bar loaded with nutrient-rich fresh produce. A “Harvest of the Month” item is featured on the lunch menus and in the lunchroom. The Kids Choice Café newsletters and promotion in the San Diego elementary schools teach children about healthy fruits and vegetables and provide nutrition and cookbook reading lists as well as other fun activities each month. San Diego elementary schools have no vending machines, which helps children focus on the healthy selections available in the cafeteria.
The Detroit City School District is the 11th largest district in the country, with more than 173,000 students. The review looked at 10 days of the district’s September 2004 elementary school menu and nutrient data from August through September 2004.
In last year’s review, the Detroit elementary school menu rated higher than any other menu analyzed because vegan burgers were available three days a week. This year, one to two featured vegan entrées were still available each week, including veggie burgers and veggie chili, but the frequency has diminished as the district has encountered some of the roadblocks to providing healthy foods described above.
Financial considerations as well as logistical issues have limited how often healthier entrées are served. For example, while delicious veggie burgers are readily available in supermarkets, the district has had trouble getting an “approved” veggie burger that is both tasty and attractive to the children. The oval-shaped burger now used meets the district’s cost constraints and has the requisite 2 ounces of protein, but round patties are more acceptable to children. On the other hand, the district’s weighted average lunch has 8.36 grams of fiber, which is close to the 10-grams-per-meal goal and is higher than many of the other menus in this year’s review. Detroit is also one of the few districts serving calcium-fortified juices on a regular basis.
There are no vending machines available to students in the elementary schools, and children learn about healthy eating with Spike, ARAMARK’s nutrition mascot, and through nutrition newsletters and USDA Team Nutrition programs such as “Fruits and Vegetables Galore…Helping Kids Eat More.” Detroit could improve its grade by featuring more vegan entrées and initiating hands-on cooking or in-class nutrition activities with children.
The Austin Independent School District is the 39th largest district in the country, with more than 78,000 students. The review looked at 10 days of the May 2004 elementary school menu and nutrient data from that menu.
Compared to the other school districts in this year’s review, the Austin elementary school menu had the lowest level of cholesterol—17 milligrams—and lowest percentage of calories coming from saturated fat—8 percent—per average meal. Austin also received two bonus points for having just 27 percent of calories from total fat. These healthy scores reflect daily offerings of a wide variety of low-fat vegetable dishes such as seasoned pinto beans, a daily garden salad, and steamed broccoli. However, Austin lost several points for never featuring a vegan entrée such as a bean and rice burrito or veggie burger.
Austin could also use improvement in the area of nutrition education programs aimed at teaching students to make healthy food choices. Currently, the district’s elementary schools have begun to use USDA’s Team Nutrition programs.
The Clark County School District is the seventh largest district in the country, with more than 256,000 students. The review looked at 10 days of the September 2004 elementary school menu and nutrient data from that menu.
Clark County made a major overhaul to its menu over the past year. On PCRM’s 2003 School Lunch Report Card, the county scored one of the lowest grades because it offered no regular vegan entrées and made vegan entrée options available only on special request. This year, however, there are two vegan entrées featured each week, including vegan sloppy joes, veggie pot pies, and garden veggie burgers. The September menu analysis also has one of the highest fiber contents of any menu in this review—9.51 grams per average lunch. In addition, Clark County menus have just 26.91 percent of calories from fat, which earned the district two bonus points.
Nutrition education programs are in the works in the Las Vegas elementary schools, but they have not yet been implemented. Consequently, this is the area in which Clark County lost the most points. However, once these education programs are in place to help children choose the already healthy options available, Clark County’s score will increase.
The New York City Public School District is the largest district in the country, with more than 1,077,000 students. The review looked at 10 days of the June 2004 Manhattan elementary school menu and nutrient data from the district’s 2000 School Meal Initiative audit.
At the end of school year 2002-2003, motivated by the high percentage of obese children in the city, the New York City Public School District embarked on efforts to improve the health quality of its lunch menu items and vending machine selections. As a result, elementary school students now see featured vegan entrées such as veggie patties with wheat buns and vegetarian “chicken” nuggets at least once a week on the regular menu. The Seventh-Day Adventist menu, which is designed for children in this religious group, offers even more healthy vegan entrées. The standard menu also features a variety of vegetable side dishes, including collard greens and plantains, in addition to daily seasonal fruit selections.
The school district works hard to educate children about nutrition and health. Vending machines now contain only juices, water, and a variety of approved snack items such as oat bran pretzels and soy crisps. The schools have partnered with New York State apple growers and other farmers to provide fresh, nutrient-dense produce to the lunch program; they have also brought in a professional gourmet chef to prepare healthy and tasty food for the students. More improvements are likely since the state legislature recently unanimously approved the New York State Healthy School Lunch Resolution, which urges schools to offer daily vegan entrées, even more nutrition education, and farm-to-school programs.
The areas where the New York City Public School District lost points in this review included fiber and cholesterol content of the menus and the unavailability of a non-dairy, calcium-rich beverage for children who do not drink regular milk. New York City could boost its score by increasing featured vegan entrée selections, which would naturally increase fiber content and decrease cholesterol content.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District is the 26th largest district in the country, with more than 109,000 students. The review looked at 10 days of the March 2004 elementary school lunch menu and recent menu analysis nutrient data.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg elementary schools have an outstanding number and variety of fruits and vegetables available every day, including black-eyed peas, squash and onions, vegetable soup, hot apples, baked beans, spinach, and fresh fruit. The schools are also well under the recommended upper limits of fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, and each meal has an average of 7 grams of fiber. Where the Charlotte-Mecklenburg menu loses points, however, is in the availability of featured vegan entrées and non-dairy, calcium-rich beverages. A vegan spaghetti entrée is currently offered every other week, but increasing plant-based entrées and making a calcium-fortified juice or soymilk available will greatly improve Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s score.
Although there are no vending machines available to the students, nutrition education programs with student participation are needed to help the children appreciate and understand the role of nutritious food in health.
The Prince George’s County Public School District is the 18th largest district in the country, with more than 135,000 students. The review looked at 10 days of the May 2004 elementary school lunch menu, School Meal Initiative audit results from 2002, and nutrient data from a recent menu analysis.
The county’s elementary school menus had a fair number of nutrient-rich seasonal fruit and vegetable options and were below the recommended upper limits on fat and saturated fat. Although the menus were too high in cholesterol (71 milligrams per average lunch), they had the highest level of fiber of any menu reviewed this year—9.69 grams. In addition, Prince George’s County is one of the few school systems reviewed that have a calcium-fortified juice available to students as an alternative to milk.
The main areas for improvement include adding featured vegan entrées, hands-on nutrition education programs, and tighter restrictions on vending machine sales. A vegan bean chili is currently featured on the menu, but it is offered just once over a two-week period. Nutrition posters and nutrient information are available to students, but active participation in nutrition education hasn’t yet been planned.
The Montgomery County Public School District is the 19th largest district in the country, with approximately 139,000 students. The review looked at 10 days of the March 2004 elementary school lunch menu, School Meal Initiative audit results from 2002, and nutrient data from the March 2004 menu analysis.
Although Montgomery County had the lowest percentage of calories from fat of any of the districts reviewed this year—24.9 percent—and received four bonus points for this, the only plant-based entrée offered was a penne pasta with tomato sauce. Furthermore, the vegetable side dishes are often potato dishes, which are not nearly as high in nutrients as some of the more colorful vegetables. By increasing the frequency of high-fiber entrée items such as bean chili, veggie burgers, and vegetable burritos and low-fat, colorful veggie side dishes, Montgomery County could score much higher in the future.
Montgomery County does not have any vending machines, but it also has not yet initiated hands-on nutrition education programs. Nutrition is currently taught only in health education classes; if that education was expanded to include more active student participation, the quality of nutrition knowledge in the county’s schools would improve significantly.
The Baltimore County Public School District is the 23rd largest district in the country, with more than 108,000 students. The review looked at 10 days of the August-September 2004 elementary school lunch menu, School Meal Initiative audit results from 2002, and nutrient data from the December 2003 menu analysis.
Baltimore County received two bonus points for having its fat calories at 26.62 percent of total, but had a surprisingly high level of cholesterol at 62 milligrams per average lunch. Nearly every day’s menu includes a low-fat vegetable side dish such as a tossed salad or veggies and dip, and fresh fruit is available daily. However, the elementary school menu never featured a vegan entrée; the addition of healthy plant-based entrées such as veggie burgers, bean and rice burritos, and vegetable pasta would not only decrease the cholesterol content, but also increase the amount of fiber in the meals, which is currently only 5.6 grams.
Efforts to educate the children on healthy eating habits have not begun. Once healthier entrée options and hands-on and in-class nutrition activities are provided, Baltimore County will improve its grade tremendously.
The Albuquerque Public School District is the 34th largest district in the country, with more than 88,000 students. The review looked at 10 days of the September 2004 elementary school lunch menu and nutrient data from this menu.
Although most days include healthy fresh fruit such as New Mexico farm-fresh watermelon and a low-fat vegetable side dish, Albuquerque was the only district in this report whose menus did not meet the requirement of deriving less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. Albuquerque also lost a significant number of points in the featured vegan entrée category and the vending machine restriction category. The district’s nutrition coordinator is looking into restricting vending beverages to just water, which will greatly improve Albuquerque’s score. The district could also add a daily featured vegan entrée, such as spaghetti with marinara sauce, bean burritos, vegan sloppy joes, or lentil stew. Not only would this increase the scores for vegan entrées, it would also decrease the level of saturated fat.
Nutrition education programs are plentiful in the district’s elementary schools. The nutrition coordinator teaches classes on fruits and vegetables, and six elementary schools (soon to be eight) have Kids Cook! programs in which students learn about healthy nutrition and food preparation through an integrated curriculum of 10 hands-on lessons taught by food educators.
As demonstrated by the 11 large school districts surveyed this year, the National School Lunch Program has a long way to go to make the honor roll. In the future, PCRM nutritionists and physicians hope to see the USDA and Congress making decisions that enable schools to offer students food selections that clearly will help prevent obesity and promote long-term good health. Significant changes in funding, regulations, and support are needed for the NSLP to be part of the solution to the childhood obesity problem.
Some encouraging trends were observed in this year’s review, and most districts are making efforts to improve the foods served and the nutrition education offered to children in schools. All the schools surveyed in this year’s report met the USDA requirement for percentage of calories from fat; three-quarters of the schools had a healthy fruit option daily; and more than half had a low-fat vegetable option daily. Seventy-three percent of the schools surveyed offered at least one featured vegan entrée in a two-week period, and three schools had at least three vegan entrées in that period. Calcium-rich, non-dairy beverages are becoming more readily available in à la carte lines, and children will soon be able to request this option with a parent’s note describing their dietary need. Three states have approved resolutions encouraging the provision of healthier foods in schools. Finally, vending machine restrictions and nutrition education programs are becoming more readily available.