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

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Nutrition for Kids


2008 School Lunch Report Card

A Report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine Autumn 2008

Background | Criteria | Report Card | download report

As childhood obesity rates climb, attention is increasingly focused on the importance of improving the healthfulness of school meals. The prevalence of childhood overweight could double over the next two decades, according to a recent study from researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. While many factors contribute to childhood obesity, poor nutrition plays a leading role.

Because the school lunches served to millions of children every day have a critical impact on their health and eating habits, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) evaluates meals served in the National School Lunch Program each year. This year, PCRM dietitians analyzed elementary school lunches served by 20 school districts and evaluated the districts’ efforts to promote healthful eating habits to students.

The results, which are summarized in a report card on page 8, show a major shift in the healthfulness of school lunches. Despite rising food prices, many districts have found cost-effective ways to improve their lunch menus. More and more schools are now serving fresh fruit, low-fat vegetable side dishes, and healthful vegetarian entrées on a daily basis. Many schools have also initiated nutrition education programs and other efforts to encourage good eating habits.

Unfortunately, some school districts continue to lag behind in serving healthful food to students. Menus in these schools are full of hamburgers, hot dogs, and other high-fat, high-cholesterol items, and students have difficulty finding healthful options.

Background

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was created in 1946 with the passage of the National School Lunch Act. It is now one of five federally funded child nutrition programs aimed at contributing to food security among low-income families. As of 2007, the NSLP serves approximately 30.5 million lunches per day at a cost of $8.7 billion a year.

Schools participating in the NSLP receive cash subsidies and commodity foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for each meal served, as well as bonus commodities when they are available from agricultural surplus. In return, participating schools must serve lunches that meet federal nutrition requirements and must provide free or reduced-price lunches for eligible children.

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. In 2005, for example, the USDA allocated close to 60 percent of food program procurement expenditures to meat, dairy, and egg products, while providing less than 5 percent to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.

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.

Rising Food Costs

School food service departments have often faced tight financial constraints, but many schools have been hit particularly hard by the recent rise in food costs. The problem is likely to continue: Food price may rise this year at the fastest pace since 1980, according to a USDA report released this month.

For some districts, rising food prices may create a new barrier to serving more healthful foods. However, many healthful plant-based entrées—such as homemade bean chili and black beans and rice—are relatively inexpensive options. PCRM’s 2008 School Lunch Report Card found that many school districts have found creative ways to serve more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat meatless meals that help students stay trim and healthy.

The federal government has begun to address high food costs by making changes to the NSLP. Congress recently authorized an increase in funding earmarked for the purchase of fruits and vegetables. The NSLP has also begun working to expand its commodity food purchases to include more whole grains, such as brown rice. Next year, when Congress takes up the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2009, legislators could further address high food costs by increasing reimbursement rates for schools serving healthful meals low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

School gardens may also help reduce food costs. A growing number of school districts have established gardens because they offer students a chance to become involved in growing and harvesting their own food. Evidence also suggests that school gardens can help persuade children to try new kinds of produce.

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 many experts agree are inadequate and outdated. USDA guidelines allow schools to serve high-fat, high-cholesterol foods regularly and do not require school districts to offer any plant-based meals. These nutrition requirements continue to lag behind the federal government’s current Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, Congress mandated that the USDA update meal planning guidelines; however, no improvements have yet been made.

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. Seventy-five percent of schools evaluated in PCRM’s report serve at least one vegetarian option every day, and of these schools, 65 percent offer a vegan entrée (up slightly from 64 percent in PCRM’s 2007 report).

Dietitians also found that 100 percent of the school districts surveyed now offer an alternative to dairy milk. In 2007, 73 percent of districts offered nondairy alternatives for free or to purchase, and 67 percent did so in 2006. Of the schools offering an alternative (water, juice, or soymilk), 45 percent serve beverages to students at no additional charge, and 55 percent make nondairy drinks available à la carte.

Sixty-five percent of school food service departments now offer nutrition education, and 75 percent of districts offer additional inventive nutrition programs. Both trends could play an important role in improving children’s health.

Most Improved

Omaha Public Schools improved its school lunch score by 30 points from last year—rising from a D to an A on PCRM’s School Lunch Report Card—by making many healthful improvements to its meal choices. Students now have the option of choosing a vegetarian entrée each day, and all vegetarian items are clearly marked on the lunch menu. Fresh fruit is available daily, as is fruit juice at no extra cost to students. Low-fat vegetable side dishes are available daily. Omaha still has room for improvement. The district continues to serve many high-fat entrées, including cheeseburgers and BBQ chicken sandwiches. But Omaha’s rising score is a good indication that it is focused on improving lunches to promote wise eating habits and the health of its students.
 

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