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School Lunches Still Fail Kids: Study Finds Too Much Frito Pie, Not Enough Fruit

By Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., and Patrick Sullivan

This piece ran during August and September 2003 under various headlines in six daily newspapers, including the Charlotte Observer, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the Saint Paul Pioneer Press.

In Las Vegas, public school cafeterias dish up beef fingers with mashed potatoes and gravy. New York City students chow down on veal patties, beef hoagies, and BBQ chicken bites. In Palm Beach, Fla., elementary school kids fill their lunch trays with hamburgers, corndogs, and fish fillets.

There's no way of knowing exactly what children across the United States eat for dinner every night. But we do know what most of them eat for lunch: far too much fat and way too much cholesterol.

As nutrition director at Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, I recently oversaw a study of lunches served to elementary students in some of largest school systems participating in the National School Lunch Program.

PCRM's school lunch report card, which awarded grades ranging from A to F, is a response to the current epidemic of obesity and diet-related health problems like Type-2 diabetes among children.

The study's criteria were modest. The NSLP serves about 27 million meals a day in schools from New York City to San Diego. We believe these lunches should offer plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, calcium-fortified orange juice or enriched soymilk, and at least the option of low-fat vegetarian and dairy-free entrées.

We even spotted school districts 20 points by taking on faith their claims that menus met NSLP nutrition standards. That's despite the federal government's recent School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study, which found that approximately 80 percent of schools serve too much fatty food to comply with the program's rules.

What we found was disturbing. Of the 18 districts we examined, only one merited an A. The public schools in our nation's capitol scored 46 percent. Many school cafeterias dish up fat and cholesterol as though 30 years of dietary research never happened.

School officials know better. The devastating impact of bad food is obvious to anyone working with kids. One in seven American children and adolescents is now obese. The resulting emotional toll is highlighted by a recent study that found obese children to be as profoundly unhappy as kids with cancer. The physical impact is worse: Two researchers at the RAND institution recently determined that obesity is linked to higher rates of chronic medical conditions than are smoking or drinking.

Do school districts face challenges to serving healthy food? You bet. The NSLP, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pushes schools hard to make meat the centerpiece of every meal. The USDA wants to unload excess meat purchased through its price support program. But children's health comes first. That's why PCRM is urging Congress, which is currently reauthorizing the National School Lunch Act, to mandate commonsense changes, including making vegetarian entrées more available.

Bureaucratic hurdles don't let school districts off the hook. Even now, motivated dining directors can work wonders, as Detroit just proved. Last year, PCRM's dietitians looked at Detroit's school lunches and discovered one of the worst programs they'd ever seen. But in just one year, the district shot from an F to an A, moving from the bottom of PCRM's report card to the top.

The choice is simple. If we want our children to be healthy, their eating habits must change. The grim alternative? A future where diet-related diseases sink their hooks into more and more students before they even graduate from high school.

Amy Lanou, PhD., is nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the author of Healthy Eating for Life for Children.


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