The third School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study, which evaluates the school meal program, came out recently. The Journal of the American Dietetic Association devoted over 130 pages in a special supplement this month to its findings. There’s much to read and think about in its data.
I’d like to devote this post to just one topic covered by the study, and talk about what our kids get served, and what they actually eat while in the school cafeteria for lunch. I, for one, am quite concerened.
A short introduction to the school meal program:
In 1946 the National School Lunch Act created the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) with a dual purpose—to feed kids and prevent dietary deficiency and to provide an outlet for surplus agricultural commodities. The school lunch program operates in all public schools and in many private schools too.
The School Breakfast Program was established in 1975 to help meet the nutritional needs of children from low-income families and is offered in fewer schools.
On any average school day more than 30 million kids eat a school lunch, and 10 million kids eat a school breakfast. Fifty-nine percent of the kids eating a school lunch are from low-income homes, as are 80 percent of school breakfast eaters.
The USDA-sponsored third School Nutrition Dietary assessment study was based on a sample of almost 400 public schools that offer subsidized school meals, and about 2,300 students grades 1-12.
Here’s a picture of what’s offered for lunch:
• Milk: Milk is offered in practically all schools. One percent fat milk was the most common milk served, and the majority of milk offered is flavored.
• Fruit: Ninety-four percent of schools offered fruit or fruit juices. Only 50 percent of schools offered fresh fruit. The rest offered canned fruit or fruit juice.
• Vegetables: This study considers starchy vegetables such as white potatoes a vegetable. By that classification, 96 percent of kids had a vegetable offering at lunch. But note that while 45 percent of high schools offered French fries (!) only 39 percent of schools offered lettuce salad, 29 percent offered orange or dark green vegetables, and 10 percent offered legumes.
• Grains/bread: The vast majority of grain products (bread, rolls, bagels, crackers etc.) were made of refined white flour. Only 5 percent of grain offering was whole wheat.
• Combination entrée: The most commonly offered combination entrée depended on age; in elementary school, 28 percent of combination entrees were peanut butter sandwiches, followed by meat sandwiches; in middle school the most commonly offered combination entree was pizza with meat, followed by cheeseburgers and sandwiches with breaded meat or poultry.
• Dessert: Those were offered in 47 percent of high schools, 41 percent of middle schools and 37 percent of elementary school. The leading deserts were cookies, cakes and brownies.
This is what the kids actually ate for school lunch:
• Milk: Seventy-five percent of kids drank milk, mostly 1 percent fat, and mostly flavored.
• Fruit: Forty-five percent of kids ate some fruit; most of the fruit eaten was canned. Only 16 percent of kids overall had fresh fruit, and among high school kids it was only 8 percent.
• Vegetables: Fifty-one percent of kids overall had some kind of vegetable, but that includes French fries. Lettuce salads were eaten by 6 percent of kids, orange or dark green vegetables were eaten by 6 percent, and legumes by 2 percent. French fries were eaten by 34 percent of high school kids!
• Grains/bread: Thirty-four percent of kids had grain products. Only 1 percent of grain products eaten were whole wheat.
• Combination entrée: 75 percent of kids selected these entrees, the most popular of which were pizza, sandwiches with breaded meat, fish or poultry, hamburgers or hot dogs.
• Dessert: Thirty-eight percent of kids had dessert, mostly consisting of cookies cake and brownies or candy.
In assessing the quality of the school meals and the school food environment, the study authors and commentators compare the school food to the recommendations set by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. By these standards:
• The school lunch menu meets the standards for key nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals.
• The majority of lunches exceeded the recommendations for total fat (in over 80 percent of schools) and saturated fat (in 72 percent of schools). (The standards require fewer than 30 percent of calories come from fat, and less than 10 percent of fat be saturated fat.)
• Only 6 percent of schools met the standards for all nutrients: fat, saturated fat, protein, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium.
• Very few schools offered lunch that was adequate in fiber.
• Practically all school lunches contained too much salt.
I offer you a very different way to look at the subsidized school lunch. You don’t need to be a nutritionist, you don’t needs charts and a calculator, and you don’t even need to know the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to assess the quality of the offerings we’re serving our next generation.
Picture the food described above and it’s easy recognize and name it: The school lunch is fast food! It’s salty, sweet and fatty, the meat is breaded and crunchy, it’s been highly processed—even the fruit and vegetables aren’t fresh for the most part.
Speaking of vegetables, I have nothing against potatoes; I think they’re nutritious and good to eat in many forms, but French fries aren’t a vegetable by any stretch of the imagination! (And neither is ketchup.)
Most of school lunches are not prepared in the school kitchen—the surplus commodities our food industry produces make their way to our schools as processed food and not as fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
For those who say that a better school menu would be too expensive, I want you to consider that treating a whole host of chronic diseases, ranging from diabetes to heart disease to cancer—which are the dangerous result of the childhood obesity epidemic and the current lack of healthy nutrition—will cost so much more. Forty percent of the public school kids in this study were overweight! We definitely can’t afford that!
There are a few schools that serve healthy, nutritious food, made from real ingredients. There are a few schools that teach kids how to cook healthy meals and even grow their own vegetables.
But what most kids learn from the institution that’s supposed to prepare them for life are really bad eating habits that will set them up for a lifetime of struggle with weight. Even worse is that kids from low income homes—who have less access to wholesome food out of school—get this low quality food at school for lunch and breakfast.
What do your kids eat for lunch at school?