Do School Cafeterias Make the Grade?
Third graders gobbling down footlong hot dogs and extra-large burgers?
It's hard news to stomach, but that's what a group of physicians says is happening in some of America's school lunchrooms. A report card on school lunches gave failing marks to counties in Missouri, Alaska, and Utah, while others in Florida, California, and North Carolina received the best grades.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a D.C.-based advocacy and research group that promotes nutrition with an emphasis on vegan and vegetarian diets, surveyed 22 of the nation's largest school districts this year and found that, by and large, public elementary schools are offering more healthful lunches, but some still pack in too much fat. These fat- and cholesterol-infused meals, experts say, are contributing to the bulging waistlines of America's children and putting the health of an increasing number of kids at risk. The survey is meant to heighten awareness about what cafeterias across the nation are serving so parents will continue to pressure schools to trim the fat from their menus.
Jordan County, Utah, which dishes out the footlong hot dogs and big burgers, was given an F for its school lunch program. (The district disputes the accuracy of the report and says high schoolers, not students in the lower grades, can have the hot dogs and burgers.) Only St. Louis schools did worse, receiving the lowest scores for serving vegetarian items an average of once a week while offering a barrage of fatty foods like pizza and chicken corn dogs.
Cash-strapped school districts, like Jordan, which rely heavily on packaged foods provided by the federal government, say it's tough to offer the more expensive healthful items without additional funds. Too often, schools say, these foods end up in the garbage can when kids opt for the sloppy joe and fries instead. "We haven't been successful with the soy burger patty," Marilyn Clayton, food service director for Jordan schools, says matter-of-factly. She adds that teaching kids state and federally mandated standards like reading and math leaves no time for nutrition education. The district's lunches, Clayton said, meet federal nutrition standards, as do the rest of the districts on the physicians committee's report card. The committee uses stricter guidelines than the government and also evaluates schools on their efforts to fight obesity and promote nutrition.
Dulce Ward, a dietician who helped survey the lunch programs for the PCRM, says districts—even those with few resources such as Oakland, Calif., the most improved school district this year—can do more to get their menus in shape. All it takes, she says, is a little more creativity and effort on the part of food services personnel to cut the fat and make healthful foods more appealing to kids.
It was this approach that earned school lunches in Pinellas County, Fla., the top rank this year. Kids there regularly find vegan entrees on the menu such as the veggie burger wrap sandwich and soy milk. The schools also partner with local chefs to create televised cooking shows that feature healthful recipes for kids. No. 2-ranked Charlotte, N.C., has gardens at its schools to emphasize the importance of eating "unusual" fruits and vegetables. And Fairfax, Va., once a C and now an A district, has a popular website that lets parents and students calculate the nutrition content of the foods they eat.
To see the full report card on school lunches, go to www.healthyschoollunches.org