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

Nutrition MD: Helping health care providers and individuals adopt healthier diets

Nutrition for Kids


2003 School Lunch Report Card: Results

A Report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
August 2003

Background | Review Process and Grading System | Report Card

Detroit City School District (Detroit, Mich.): 94%
The Detroit City School District is the 12th largest district in the United States, with 265 schools enrolling 166,675 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the fall 2003 menu were analyzed.

Detroit won the most improved nutrition award this year as it jumped from a failing grade of 57 percent in 2002 to an “A” grade of 94 percent this year. The Detroit schools’ fall 2003 menu reflects a number of healthy changes, including a daily offering of such nutrient-rich, low-fat vegetable side dishes as sweet potatoes, green leafy vegetables, and black-eyed peas, as well as a daily choice of such fruit as spiced apples, fresh oranges, and fresh pears.

In addition, Detroit lunchrooms dish up a meatless entrée to kids daily and a dairy-free garden burger three times per week. Students can also always find peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and calcium-fortified juices are available so that students who are unable to tolerate dairy products or choose not to consume them can have a beverage rich in calcium. Whole grains now appear throughout the Detroit menu.

The Detroit Schools Office of Food Services is working to implement additional meatless entrées as they become available from suppliers. The district will receive a perfect score in future reports if it is able to make a featured vegan entrée item available on a daily basis.

Miami-Dade County School District (Miami, Fla.): 89%
The Miami-Dade County School District is the fifth largest district in the United States, with 363 schools enrolling 375,836 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the April 2003 menu were analyzed.

Miami-Dade made huge improvements in the nutritional quality of its elementary lunch menus this year, jumping from 71 percent last year to 89 percent this year. This increase is a result of offering daily options of low-fat vegetable side-dishes such as sliced tomato salads and mixed vegetable salads with light dressing, as well as plantains and a variety of fresh fruits. Meatless entrées are featured on a near daily basis, including cheese lasagna, toasted cheese sandwiches, and yogurt and fruit entrées. Vegan entrées appear about two times per week on the menu and include baked potatoes with broccoli and cheeseless vegetarian chili. Vegan salads and peanut butter sandwiches are available at every meal.

Miami-Dade will offer calcium-fortified juices in the upcoming school year and is currently looking into offering calcium-fortified soymilk. Also worthy of mention are Miami-Dade’s “Eat Your Colors Every Day” pilot program and its elementary gardening programs, which both encourage young kids to appreciate healthy fruits and vegetables.

Gwinnett County Public School District (Lawrenceville, Ga.): 88%
The Gwinnett County Public School District is the 23rd largest district in the United States, with 86 schools enrolling 116,339 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the August 2003 menu were analyzed.

The Gwinnett menu features such healthy side dishes as okra, fresh vegetables with dip, a vegetable medley, and fresh or chilled fruit daily. The vegetarian entrées featured in the elementary schools are quite extensive and include such selections as cheese ravioli, a veggie sub, a veggie sandwich, and a bean and cheese burrito. Vegan entrée items are available on a weekly basis and include choices like a baked potato bar, spaghetti with marinara sauce, and a bean burrito. A cholesterol-free veggie burger would be an excellent and simple entrée for Gwinnett to include in its elementary menu cycle to help improve its grade.

Gwinnett offers additional vegan menu options, including a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a veggie sandwich and veggie chef salad without cheese upon request. Calcium-fortified juices are available for those who don’t choose milk at Gwinnett, and calcium-fortified soymilk is provided upon request.

In the upcoming school year, Nutrition Education Leaders will appear in each school to implement nutrition bulletin boards, classroom nutrition lessons, and take the kids on kitchen tours with cooking lessons to help them appreciate good nutrition as a vital part of health.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District (Charlotte, N.C.): 87%

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District is the 25th largest district in the United States, with 137 schools enrolling 106,312 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the April 2003 menu were analyzed.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg features such healthy vegetable side dishes as calcium-rich turnip greens, squash and onions, cabbage, and spinach, and such healthy fruits as cantaloupe, apples, and pears on a regular basis. Vegetarian entrée items like a vegetarian hoagie, nachos, and a toasted cheese sandwich are available daily, with such vegan selections as black-eyed peas with Italian bread and nachos with refried beans appearing approximately once a week on the menu. A vegan peanut butter sandwich with sunflower seeds option is available daily. The orange juice at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg elementary schools is fortified with calcium and is available as a replacement for milk.

This district will be moving to a nutrient-based menu plan next year, which will make it easier to serve vegetarian and vegan entrée items. The district is currently testing a vegan beans and rice dish that has gone over well with the kids.

Fairfax County Public School District (Fairfax, Va.): 86%
The Fairfax County Public School District is the 14th largest district in the United States, with 198 schools enrolling 160,584 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the September 2003 menu were analyzed.

Fairfax elementary menus have a number of healthy fruit and vegetable offerings every day, including unique selections such as jicama and carrots with dip, watermelon, and apricots. The menu features meatless entrée items every day and includes such items as cheese lasagna and macaroni and cheese with a wheat roll.

There are two vegetarian entrée options available daily—yogurt and a pretzel and a grilled cheese sandwich. The daily vegan option is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and one of the fifteen analyzed days includes a veggie burger on a bun with or without cheese.

Including more vegan entrée items on a regular basis would help Fairfax reach a perfect score. Entrée items such as cheeseless vegetarian chili, bean and brown rice burritos, and garden salads with beans or soynuts are all vegan items that kids love. These dishes are also low in fat, free of cholesterol, and rich in health-promoting fiber.

Fairfax was the first school district in the United States to start serving calcium-fortified juices and has been doing so for the past three years. In addition, Fairfax County has won a number of national awards for innovative and educational nutrition programs that help children adopt healthy eating habits.

Pinellas County School District (Largo, Fla.): 86%

Pinellas County School District is the 22nd largest district in the United States, with 169 schools enrolling 114,583 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the September 2003 menu were analyzed.

Pinellas received full credit for offering nutritious vegetable and fruit side dishes, vegetarian entrées, and a vegan entrée option on a daily basis. Examples of these include sweet potatoes, fresh veggies with dip, steamed broccoli, assorted fresh fruit, vegetable pizza, veggie chili, and baked ziti with cheese, as well as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich daily. Only one of the days analyzed includes a featured vegan entrée (meatless, dairy-free, and cholesterol-free)—specifically, a bean burrito.

However, to improve the healthy entrée options in the district, the dietitian in charge of Pinellas County’s menus is currently looking into an inexpensive vegan burger. The district dietitian is also working to educate elementary school kids about nutrition in classroom presentations about the benefits of healthy eating.

Broward County School District (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.): 85%
The Broward County School District is the sixth largest district in the United States, with 244 schools enrolling 266,055 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the July 2003 menu were analyzed.

Broward County received the same score this year as it did last year for its elementary lunch offerings. The elementary children still have daily access to a fresh salad bar as both a vegetable side dish option and a vegetarian and vegan entrée option. Fresh fruit and calcium-fortified juices are available daily, and such featured vegetarian entrée items as grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese appear on a regular basis. There are currently no featured vegan entrée items.

Broward County could greatly improve its score by offering veggie burgers without cheese, bean and rice dishes, and cheeseless bean burritos on a daily basis. On the nutrition education front, Broward participates in soymilk acceptability studies and the
5 A Day fruit and vegetable pilot program.

Hillsborough County School District (Tampa, Fla.): 85%
The Hillsborough County School District is the 11th largest district in the United States, with 219 schools enrolling 169,789 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the August 2003 menu were analyzed.

Fresh fruits, low-fat vegetables, and meatless entrées are served on a daily basis, including honeydew, watermelon, steamed broccoli, and Italian blend vegetables. The menu does not currently feature any meatless, dairy-free, and egg-free entrées. However, peanut butter, soynuts, beans, pecans, and walnuts are all available daily as vegan protein sources. Juices fortified with calcium are available with lunches.

Hillsborough has a number of healthy nutrition programs to encourage kids to select nutrient-dense foods. For example, a new fruit or vegetable is featured every month, and samples are offered to kids standing in the lunch line in hopes that they will choose the healthy new food.

New York City Public School District (New York, N.Y.): 81%
The New York City Public School District is the largest district in the United States, with 1,164 schools enrolling 1,049,831 students. Fifteen days of Southern Brooklyn/Staten Island elementary school lunches from the June 2003 menu were analyzed.

New York jumped up to 81 percent this year from 70 percent last year by including a daily vegetarian entrée item and a daily nutritious low-fat vegetable side dish. Fresh and dried fruits and unique vegetable side dishes are still part of the New York elementary menu, which includes items such as romaine salads with cherry tomatoes, seasoned spinach, fiesta blend vegetables, and fresh fruit medleys. Meatless entrées continue to appear about twice per week and include favorites such as stuffed shells and French bread pizza. A vegan entrée item is featured once every three weeks. Examples include a veggie burger on a wheat bun.

New York could increase its score 14 percentage points by offering a daily meatless and dairy-free entrée, such as kid-tested-and-approved bean and rice burritos, hummus sandwiches, and pasta with roasted vegetables. Citing the high incidence of childhood obesity, the New York City School District recently announced it would eliminate soda, hard candy, doughnuts, and other junk food from vending machines and take strong steps to reduce the portion size and fat content of lunches served in all the district’s schools.

Philadelphia City School District (Philadelphia, Pa.): 80%
The Philadelphia City School District is the ninth largest district in the United States, with 263 schools enrolling 197,083 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the October 2002 menu were analyzed.

Philadelphia’s elementary schools offer unique low-fat veggie side dishes, such as stewed tomatoes, tossed green salads with low-cal dressing, vegetarian baked beans, and steamed corn. Assorted fresh fruit, meatless entrées, and vegan entrée options of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, soy pockets, and soy tacos are offered daily, with cheese ravioli, grilled cheese sandwiches, and baked macaroni and cheese as examples of a few of the vegetarian main dishes.

The only area where Philadelphia menus lost points was in the category of featured vegan entrées. Philadelphia could improve its score by featuring its soy tacos and soy pocket sandwiches, as well as by trying items such as soy hot dogs, vegetarian bean and rice dishes, veggie chili, and cheeseless lasagna.

Philadelphia’s interactive nutrition education programs are worth bragging about. Inventive programs in the elementary schools include the “Dragon Detective Agency,” in which kids try to solve the mysteries of good nutrition with healthy drinks, vegetables, snacks, and fruits. The schools also offer assembly programs emphasizing physical activity and healthy eating, classroom and after school nutrition education programs, and partnerships with local gardening programs that allow children to grow, taste, and sell nutritious vegetables and fruits at an after-school market stand.

Montgomery County Public School District (Rockville, Md.): 78%
Montgomery County Public School District is the 18th largest district in the United States, with 193 schools enrolling 136,895 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the June 2003 menu were analyzed.

Nutrient-rich, low-fat vegetable sides are available about four times per week and whole or dried fruit appear nearly every day on the menu, with selections including mixed vegetables, baby carrots with dip, tossed salads, raisins, and pineapple. Meatless entrées appear on the menu three times per week, and meatless, dairy-free entrées appear approximately once per week. The vegan entrées available are bean burritos and spaghetti with marinara sauce. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are available as a vegan option every day. Breakfast items can always be reserved for vegetarian or vegan children, and calcium-fortified juice is available for children who do not consume dairy milk.

Adding more vegan entrées, such as veggie burgers and garden salads with beans and soynuts, to the cycle menu would greatly improve Montgomery County’s nutrition grade.

Prince George’s County Public School District (Upper Marlboro, Md.): 78%
The Prince George’s County Public School District is the 19th largest district in the United States, with 196 schools enrolling 135,039 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the March 2003 menu were analyzed.

Calcium-rich kale and sweet potatoes are two of the regular low-fat veggie side dishes available at county elementary schools. Seasonal fresh fruit and hot or cold vegetarian main dishes, such as cold salad platters, are available daily. Adding such daily vegan entrées as veggie hot dogs, veggie chili, and bean and brown rice burritos to the menu, as well as offering calcium-fortified juices, would increase Prince George’s County’s grade from a C+ to an A+.

Dallas Independent School District (Dallas, Texas): 77%
The Dallas Independent School District is the 13th largest district in the United States, with 226 schools enrolling 163,562 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the August–September 2003 menu were analyzed.

Dallas scored 12 points higher this year than last. Low-fat vegetable side dishes and fruits are on the menu approximately four times per week, including such choices as Popeye (spinach) salad, orange wedges, and mandarin fruit salad. Dallas could raise its score eight percentage points by increasing the frequency of such low-fat, nutrient-dense veggie side dishes as tossed salads, cucumbers with light salad dressing, and collard greens and adding a daily option of whole fruit on the menu.

Although Dallas has a hot or cold vegetarian entrée on the menu each day, a daily offering of low-fat vegan main dishes like vegetarian burgers, soy hot dogs on whole wheat buns, and bean, rice, and vegetable stews would significantly increase the nutrient density and health value of the overall menu. On a positive nutrition education note, Dallas elementary schools participate in a Farm-to-School program that introduces kids to fruits and vegetables from local farms and teaches them to appreciate these nutrient-rich foods.

Palm Beach County School District (Riviera Beach, Fla.): 76%
The Palm Beach County School District is the 15th largest district in the United States, with 193 schools enrolling 160,223 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the September 2003 menu were analyzed.

The Palm Beach elementary menu includes calcium-rich collard greens and other healthy vegetables, as well as calcium-fortified juice and fresh fruit daily. A featured meatless entrée of cheese pizza is offered twice a week, and children can create a vegetarian meal with a garden salad and other side dishes every day. No vegan entrées are featured on the menu, but balanced vegan meals can be created with beans and rice side dishes, garden salads, peanut butter sandwiches, and other vegetable and fruits.

Palm Beach is looking into offering more vegan entrée options. Veggie burgers, spaghetti with marinara sauce, hummus sandwich plates, and entrée-size bean and rice dishes are all excellent ways to improve the nutritional quality of school menus. In addition, Palm Beach is participating in the “Eat Your Colors Every Day” fruit and vegetable pilot program, which has been successful in convincing kids to eat healthy green leafy vegetables, beans, and other fruits and vegetables.

Los Angeles Unified School District (Los Angeles, Calif.): 71%
Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the second largest district in the United States, with 663 schools enrolling 735,058 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the July/August 2003 satellite menu were analyzed.
One-third of LAUSD’s elementary schools have satellite kitchens where food preparation is limited, and the other two-thirds have “prep” kitchens where more entrées can be prepared and more menu options are available. Nutrient-rich, low-fat vegetable sides are available only twice a week in elementary schools with satellite kitchens but are available daily in prep kitchen schools due to the presence of fruit and vegetable bars.

Whole or dried fruit appears daily in all elementary schools, including such selections as fresh nectarines, melon, and orange wedges. Meatless entrées appear on the menu only once or twice a week in schools with satellite kitchens and three or four times in prep kitchen schools. These include such items as a bean-and-cheese burrito and a cheese and bread bar. Prep kitchen schools also have a vegan chili featured on the menu once every three weeks. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is available daily as a vegan entrée option in all schools. Calcium-fortified, non-dairy beverages are not available at this time.

Adding more meatless and vegan entrées, such as vegetarian burgers, spaghetti with marinara sauce and soy protein, and bean and brown rice dishes, would greatly improve L.A.’s menu grade and the nutritional quality of the menus. Sixty schools within the L.A. district already have full salad bars where vegan and vegetarian entrées can be created—when L.A. incorporates these into every school, the district’s grade will increase tremendously.

Los Angeles has also initiated a number of cutting-edge nutrition education programs. LA was the first district to ban soda sales in elementary schools in response to the obesity epidemic. Los Angeles’ school gardening, harvest of the month, Farm-to-School, and “Chefs in the Classroom” programs have been incredibly popular and successful in getting children to appreciate and enjoy a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.

In the “Chefs in the Classroom” program, for example, professional chefs team up with teachers and students to explore ethnic cuisines, new vocabulary, and healthy tastes. Sample menus prepared in this program include Chinese steamed buns and stir-fry vegetables, Italian gnocchi with homemade tomato sauce, Belgian vegetable stew, carrot and veggie stuffed ravioli, and low-fat potato latkes.

San Diego City Unified School District (San Diego, Calif.): 70%
The San Diego City Unified School District is the 17th largest district in the United States, with 182 schools enrolling 141,599 students. Fifteen days of elementary school lunches from the Summer 2003 and Kids Choice Café menus were analyzed.

San Diego elementary schools are currently undergoing a number of healthy changes, including the addition of salad bars in every school. Fifty of the 130 elementary schools have salad bars that offer daily helpings of healthy vegetables, fruits, nuts, and side dishes. By May of 2004, every elementary school in San Diego will have a salad bar, and the district’s grade will increase significantly. According to the food service director, kids love building huge plates of healthy salads and “chowing down” on them. In the schools where there aren’t yet salad bars, mixed green salads and other healthy low-fat vegetable side dishes are available.

Juicy kiwi and other seasonal fruits are available every day in the San Diego elementary schools. Meatless entrées are on the menu daily in schools that have more than one entrée item, and vegetarian meals can be created with side dishes and items from the salad bars when they are present. Vegan menu items are not featured at present, but a soy burger is offered in the secondary schools. Vegan menu options are only available in schools with salad bars where lunches can be created using veggies, pasta salad, sunflower seeds, fruit, and low-fat dressing. Peanut butter is no longer served due to peanut allergies.

Entrée options that are easy to prepare, free of meat and dairy products, and loved by children include spaghetti with marinara sauce, nachos with beans, salsa, and guacamole, soy hot dogs, and burritos loaded with vegetables and pinto beans. Adding these entrée items to the elementary menus will greatly improve San Diego’s grade.

The district offers many nutrition education programs, including gardening programs in elementary schools, partnerships with local organic farms, nutrition essay writing contests, salad bar promotion, and education by people dressed in vegetable costumes.

Clark County School District (Las Vegas, Nevada): 59%
The Clark County School District is the seventh largest district in the United States, with 275 schools enrolling 245,659 students. Eight days of elementary school lunches from the July 2003 Satellite School menu and seven days of lunches from the kitchen and dish-up menus were analyzed.

The elementary school lunch selections in Clark County are not near where they need to be to teach kids healthy eating habits and promote long-term health. However, the district is currently making efforts to improve menus and offer more vegetarian and vegan entrée items. Low-fat vegetable side dishes are offered daily and include vegetarian beans and a healthy tossed green salad. Fruits are on the menu nearly every day.

Due to limited kitchen facilities, Clark County presently has a vegetarian main dish on the menu just one to two times per week. The district does not have a featured vegan entrée or a vegan option. Citing severe peanut allergies in the Las Vegas elementary schools, the food service director pulled all peanut butter out of the schools.

Easy vegan foods that would increase the healthy options in the Clark County elementary schools include hummus sandwiches, veggie chili, bean and rice burritos, soy hot dogs, and veggie burgers. Calcium-fortified juices and other non-dairy, calcium-rich beverages are available upon request, but are only offered without request when the district’s juice vendor has them available for order.

Despite the lack of healthy options in the lunchroom, the district does offer a number of educational programs. These include “Calcium Isn’t Just Milk,” a program in partnership with a local extension service that teaches kids about non-dairy sources of calcium, such as beans and dark green leafy vegetables. Clark County is also doing a number of fruit and vegetable acceptability studies with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas comparing sliced to whole fruit consumption.

District of Columbia Public Schools (Washington, D.C.): 46%
The D.C. elementary schools provide low-fat vegetable side dishes on two out of every three days and fresh fruit nearly every day. Vegetarian children are out of luck in the D.C. schools, since meatless entrées are offered just once per week, with no vegetarian or vegan option available on other days. On those days, vegetarian children have to pick the meat and/or cheese off the regular lunch main dish to get a vegetarian meal.

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