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

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Nutrition for Kids


2006 School Lunch Report Card: Criteria

A Report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

background | the criteria | the report card | Download this fact sheet

 

Review Process

PCRM evaluated 18 elementary school lunch programs from the largest school districts in the country. The report includes districts from the following regions of the United States: Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, New England, Southern, Southwest, and Western.

Criteria and Grading System

This year’s review looked at three essential categories for children’s nutrition in schools:

  • Obesity and Chronic Disease Prevention
  • Health Promotion and Nutrition Adequacy
  • Nutrition Initiatives

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

Obesity and Chronic Disease Prevention: 50 points
In this category, districts were graded on whether they met, at minimum, the USDA requirements of less than 30 percent of calories from fat and less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. Districts were also judged on how frequently they served healthy low-fat, zero-cholesterol entrées. Such entrées are important for the prevention of obesity and obesity-related diseases. Dietary fat is a concentrated source of calories, with nine calories per gram, compared with four calories per gram for protein and carbohydrates. The easiest way to reduce calorie intake and remain at a healthy weight is to reduce fat intake.

Research has linked consumption of dietary fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol to high blood pressure, elevated blood lipids, and increased heart disease risk. In addition, being overweight and consuming excess dietary fat increases the risk for developing type 2 diabetes and hormone-related cancers such as breast and prostate cancer.

With nutrition research emphasizing the health risks of cholesterol and fats and the disease-preventive power of many nutrients found exclusively in plant-based foods, it is especially important that schools provide plant-based meals that are low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Most vegan entrées are naturally low in fat and cholesterol-free, and—when offered to children on a regular basis—will help them acquire healthy eating habits that will keep them slim and prevent a host of chronic diseases.

Obesity and Chronic Disease Prevention: 50 points

Subcategory

Data Source

Total Points

Formula

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

Menu Nutrition Analysis conducted by schools or PCRM

25 points

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

How many vegan/vegetarian entrée options does the district offer?

Recent lunch menu (10-day period)

25 points

Featured vegan entrée daily=2 points per day for featured vegan entrées
or
Variety of vegan choices available on request=15 points
or
Vegetarian entrée daily=1 point per day for vegetarian entrée

Bonus: Offering a variety of vegan options on a rotating basis (3 or more rotating options weekly)=5 points

 

Health Promotion and Nutrition Adequacy: 35 points

Separate from nutrition’s relationship to disease prevention is the issue of whether meal patterns meet nutrient needs and provide dietary options that promote the health of all children. The Health Promotion and Nutrition Adequacy category specifically measures whether the foods offered in elementary school lunches provide essential nutrients and fiber. To do this, the report grades school districts on the availability of daily low-fat vegetable side dishes, fresh vegetables, and fresh fruit. This category also includes points for whether or not a school district had a nondairy beverage available. These components are fundamental to a balanced and nutrient-sufficient meal pattern.

Fruits and Vegetables. To promote health and be nutritionally adequate, meals should include low-fat vegetable side dishes and fruit. Adults who consume healthy amounts of fruits and vegetables often learned to eat them in childhood. Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamin C, beta-carotene, riboflavin, iron, calcium, fiber, and many other nutrients. When schools offer tasty, low-fat vegetable side dishes—such as green salads, mixed vegetables, steamed broccoli, corn on the cob, and raw baby carrots—and fresh or dried fruit, children begin to develop a taste for these items. In this review, districts received the following:

  • two points for each day over a five-day period they served a fresh vegetable or steamed or low-fat vegetable side dish
  • one point for each day over a five-day period they served canned fruit or fruit juice, or two points for each day over a five-day period they served fresh or dried fruit
  • one additional point for each day they served a choice of three or more healthy fruit and vegetable options

Nondairy Beverages. Nondairy beverage alternatives are essential in the NSLP. Many U.S. children are lactose intolerant or allergic to milk; others choose to avoid milk for other reasons, such as taste preferences, religious or ethical considerations, or health needs. The NSLP does not currently offer an alternative beverage to cow’s milk to all children as an option on the lunch line. However, with the 2004 reauthorization of the National School Lunch Act, children who require or request an alternative to cow’s milk are able to receive an alternative as long as they have a note from a parent.
At this point, calcium-fortified soymilk and calcium-fortified juices are more costly than dairy milk because cow’s milk is purchased by the USDA through the commodities program and distributed at very low cost to schools. Despite the extra expense, some school districts are already offering nondairy beverage alternatives in school lunch programs, though this is often done à la carte. In this review, PCRM awarded 10 points to school districts that provide fortified nondairy milks, calcium-fortified fruit juices, or water to all students on a daily basis.

Health Promotion and Nutrition Adequacy: 35 points

Subcategory

Data Source

Total Points

Formula

Vegetable side dish

Recent lunch menu

10 points

Over 5-day period (points per day):
0 points: fried or high-fat vegetable
or
2 points: fresh vegetable, steamed or low-fat vegetable dish (3g of fat or less per serving)

Fruit

Recent lunch menu

10 points

Over 5-day period (points per day):
0 points: canned pre-sweetened fruit
1 point: canned or fruit juice
or
2 points: fresh or dried fruit

Wide variety of fresh fruits or fresh, steamed, or cooked low-fat vegetables served daily

Recent lunch menu

5 points

Over 5-day period (points per day)
1 point: 3 or more different options available each day

Nondairy beverage

Food service director

10 points

10 points: Nondairy beverage available daily to all students (à la carte or free)
or
5 points: Available with note only

 

Nutrition Initiatives: 15 points

To promote health and ward off obesity, schools must teach children about good nutrition. This review evaluated districts on what steps they are taking to help children appreciate and choose healthy food and understand why diets built from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes help prevent obesity and chronic diseases.

Schools received three points for having school gardens, salad bars, farm-to-school programs, or other innovative programs that encourage healthy eating. School districts that offered nutrition education through the food service department and in the cafeteria were also awarded additional points. Education is critical to establishing healthy nutrition habits. Therefore, districts received three points for offering nutrition messages written on the school menus, nutrition classes taught by dietitians or in the food service department, and other creative means of education. Schools received an additional three points for specifically promoting plant-based foods by highlighting them on their menus or marketing them to children. Finally, three points were given to school districts that offered incentives to students who choose healthy meals.

School vending machines that sell unhealthy snack foods and beverages compete with healthier foods in a child’s daily energy intake. To encourage healthful choices, school vending machines should sell only low-fat snack items, 100 percent fruit juice, water, and nutrient-rich snack items. PCRM’s report awards one point to districts with vending machines if juice and water, rather than soda, were available; districts were given another point if snack foods were limited to low-fat items; and they received one point if fruit and vegetable snacks were sold. School districts also received full credit—three points—if there were no vending machines in the cafeteria at all.

 

Nutrition Initiatives: 15 points


Subcategory

Data Source

Total Points

Formula

Innovative programs

Food service director

3 points

School garden
Salad bar
Farm-to-school
Other

Nutrition education in cafeteria or through food service department.

Food service director

3 points

 

Education about benefits of plant-based diets on menu

Menu

3 points

Written reference to vegetarian/vegan

Incentives for choosing healthy meals

Menu/Food service director

3 points

Healthy meals cost less or
Students get rewarded for choosing a healthy, balanced meal

Vending machines

Food service director

3 points

1 point for only low-fat vending options

1 point for fresh fruit or vegetable options

1 point for only healthy beverage options

or

Full credit (3 points) given to schools with no vending machines in cafeteria


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