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

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Nutrition for Kids


2012 PCRM School Lunch Report Card

A Report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
October 2012

Background | Criteria | Report Card | download report

As schools across America prepare to celebrate National School Lunch Week and childhood obesity rates continue to climb, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine releases its eighth School Lunch Report Card since 2001, evaluating meals served by the National School Lunch Program. This year, Pinellas County Schools in Florida received a perfect score of 100, a first in the report card’s history. But other districts continue to struggle to offer students healthful lunches.

With 12.5 million American children obese and nearly one-quarter of U.S. teenagers suffering diabetes or prediabetes, attention is increasingly focused on the importance of improving the healthfulness of school meals. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 makes some of the most significant changes to the NSLP in decades. The legislation mandates that the NSLP begin making school lunches more healthful, but still leaves room for improvement.

The School Lunch Report Card below shows a major shift in the healthfulness of school lunches. (See page 8 for detailed results.) Many schools now serve fresh fruit, low-fat vegetable side dishes, healthful vegetarian entrées, and nondairy beverages on a daily basis. Unfortunately, some school districts lag behind. Menus in these schools are full of high-fat, high-cholesterol dairy products and processed meats, such as hot dogs and pepperoni, which are linked to increased colorectal cancer risk.

School District  Score Grade
Pinellas County Schools (Fla.) 100 A+
Howard County Public School System (Md.) 97 A+
Knox County Schools (Tenn.) 97 A+
Omaha Public Schools (Neb.) 97 A+
Atlanta Public Schools (Ga.) 96 A
Broward County Public Schools (Fla.) 96 A
St. Louis Public Schools (Mo.) 95 A
Miami-Dade County Public Schools (Fla.) 93 A
Long Beach Unified School District (Calif.) 90 A-
Oakland Unified School District (Calif.) 88 B+
Washoe County School District (Nev.) 88 B+
Montgomery County Public Schools (Md.) 86 B+
Dallas Independent School District (Texas) 85 B
Seminole County Public Schools (Fla.) 80 B-
Anchorage School District (Alaska) 79 C+
Guilford County Schools (N.C.) 79 C+
School District of Philadelphia (Pa.) 75 C
Burlington School District (Vt.) 69 D+
Fresno Unified School District (Calif.) 69 D+
Davis School District (Utah) 67 D+
Houston Independent School District (Texas) 66 D
Milwaukee Public Schools (Wis.) 64 D

Background

The National School Lunch Program was created in 1946 with the passage of the National School Lunch Act. As of 2011, the NSLP serves approximately 31 million lunches per day at a cost of $11.1 billion a year.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update the NSLP’s meal pattern and nutrition standards based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The new meal pattern began to go into effect at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.

These guidelines require schools to serve fruits and vegetables every day, offer more whole-grain items, and reduce the amounts of saturated fat and sodium served to children. They also set specific calorie limits to ensure age-appropriate meals. But schools still have the discretion to offer processed meats, cheese, and other unhealthful foods.

One longstanding barrier to schools serving more healthful meals is the USDA’s commodity foods program, which distributes large quantities of unhealthful “entitlement foods.” Every year, the USDA purchases hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pork, beef, and other high-fat, high-cholesterol animal products, primarily as an economic benefit to American agribusiness.

The department then distributes these products through the NSLP and other food-assistance programs. About half of these commodity products are converted into ready-to-eat processed foods such as hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets—high-fat, high-cholesterol products commonly found on school menus. The USDA’s distribution of unhealthful products helps explain why it can cost a school district more than twice as much to provide a high-fiber, low-fat veggie burger instead of a high-fat, fiber-free hamburger.

Making the Grade

To receive a high grade in PCRM’s School Lunch Report Card, schools must go above and beyond USDA nutrition guidelines, which although improving, allow schools to serve high-fat, high-cholesterol foods regularly and do not require school districts to offer any plant-based entrées.

To earn a perfect score, school districts must meet several criteria. They must meet USDA standards for fat and saturated fat. They must offer a healthful vegetarian entrée daily. Schools must also have at least one vegan option—an entrée free of eggs, meat, and dairy—available each day and must serve a variety of vegan options. At least one serving of fresh fruit and a low-fat vegetable side dish must also be served daily. In addition, schools must provide a nondairy beverage to all students and provide nutrition education in the cafeteria, as well as offer programs that promote healthful eating habits.

School Lunch Trends

PCRM’s survey found that schools are serving an increasing number of healthful vegetarian and vegan entrées. Fifty-nine percent of schools evaluated in PCRM’s report serve at least one vegetarian option every day, and of these schools, 76 percent offer a vegan entrée.

Dietitians found that 95 percent of the school districts surveyed offer an alternative to dairy milk, down slightly from the last School Lunch Report Card. In 2008, 100 percent of districts offered nondairy alternatives for free or to purchase. Of the schools offering an alternative (water, juice, or soymilk), 100 percent serve beverages to students at no additional charge.

Seventy-seven percent of school food service departments now offer nutrition education, and 95 percent of districts offer additional inventive nutrition programs, such as farm-to-school programs and the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program. These trends could play an important role in improving children’s health.

Most Improved

Washoe County School District improved its score by 22 points from the last School Lunch Report card—rising from a D (66) to a B+ (88).

In 2008, Washoe served healthful vegetarian options about once a week, and it offered no nutrition education or innovative food programs. Now, vegetarian entrées are served three to four times a week and are clearly marked on the menu. The district also operates the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program in 34 schools, and some schools now have gardens.

Although St. Louis Public Schools wasn’t on the last School Lunch Report Card, it deserves a “most improved” mention. When it last appeared on the report card in 2007, it earned an F (53). This year it earns an A (95) for changes such as daily vegetarian entrées, near-daily vegan entrées, and almost a dozen nutrition education initiatives.

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