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

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Nutrition for Kids


2002 School Lunch Report Card: Introduction

A Report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

introduction | the criteria | the report card | download report

Introduction

It’s time for the nation’s children to head back to school—and back to school lunch. Because parents and health professionals are interested in the nutrition quality of the meals being offered in school cafeterias, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) graded the nutrition quality of the menus offered in ten of the largest U.S. school districts participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

The NSLP is a federally assisted meal program operating in nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential childcare institutions. Schools that choose to participate in the program receive cash subsidies, donated commodities, and free bonus shipments for each meal served. In return, they must serve lunches that meet federal nutrition requirements, as well as offer free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children.

Background

On average, children in the United States consume too much total fat and saturated fat and far too few fruits and vegetables. These dietary patterns contribute to the rising problem of childhood obesity. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on obesity in America found that 60 percent of overweight five- to ten-year-olds already have at least one risk factor for heart disease, such as raised blood pressure or insulin levels.

To reverse these trends, children should be served low-fat, plant-based meals, encouraging them to follow healthy, vegetarian eating habits right from the start. A diet drawn from varied plant sources easily achieves or maintains a healthy body weight without calorie counting and satisfies calcium and protein requirements, providing all essential amino acids—even without intentional combining or “protein complementing.” There is ample protein in whole grains, vegetables, and legumes, and plenty of calcium in green leafy vegetables, fortified juices, and other plant foods with health advantages that meat and dairy products lack. In short, diets built from grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans are easy to prepare, low-cost, and satisfying to hungry children while offering the most disease-fighting protection of any dietary pattern.

Review process and grading system

PCRM dietitians looked at 15 days of recent elementary school lunch menus for New York City, Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, Fairfax County (Virginia), Miami, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, and Detroit.

One point was awarded for each time the menu included a low-fat vegetable side dish, a whole or dried fruit, a hot vegetarian entrée (meatless), a hot vegan entrée (meatless, dairy-free, and egg-free), or a vegan option by request over the 15-day period, totaling 75 possible points.

Twenty points were then awarded to each school district meeting the NSLP nutrition requirements, including less than 30 percent of calories from fat, less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat, and one-third of the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) for protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories. All of the school districts surveyed are currently meeting these nutrition guidelines.
An additional five points were given to school districts offering non-dairy, calcium-rich beverages, such as calcium-fortified orange juice, on a daily basis to help meet the calcium needs of students who either cannot or do not drink milk.

PCRM dietitians consulted the school districts’ nutrition staffs as needed with questions about food items that could not be answered by reviewing the menus or the school districts’ Web sites.

Each district was given a score out of 100 possible points, which was then converted into a letter grade.
Note: All of the school districts included in this survey are using the “Offer vs. Serve” (OVS) menu system. OVS is a federal regulation designed to reduce food waste in the lunch program by allowing students to choose only foods they intend to eat. The school lunch pattern includes five food items: 1. meat or meat alternative, 2. bread or bread alternative, 3. milk, 4. fruits, and 5. vegetables. Students are permitted to select anywhere from three to five of the five offered components of the meal. Students are not allowed to choose two of the same component, but they can request a second portion of fruit or vegetable at no extra charge.

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