The cafeteria conundrum

Is healthy on the menu?


Heather Cunningham

Remember mystery meat, jellied fruit cocktail and mashed potatoes swimming in gravy? All are staples of the stereotypical school hot lunch fare that has been the focus of jokes, disdain and dismissal over the years—the same stuff that you might have eaten while growing up.

In contrast, today’s kids enjoy trendier choices in the cafeteria: pizza, chicken fingers, taco salads and nachos. They might be more popular, but do they pack a greater nutritional punch?

Federal and state administrators of the National School Lunch Program insist schools must follow specific nutritional guidelines when planning their menus; they stand behind studies that indicate children who eat hot lunch at school get more fruits and vegetables and less fat from that meal than their friends who bring a sack lunch from home.

But children’s health advocates say too many schools fail to meet those guidelines. Budget restrictions and a myriad of other barriers mean schools end up serving hot lunches that are higher in fat and sodium, and too reliant on processed foods to be nutritionally balanced.

"They are both right to some extent," says Rochelle Davis, the founding executive director of the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign.

Packed lunches are sometimes unhealthy, but there is no doubt there are problems with the food served in many schools, she says.

How it works

Healthy or not, there is no argument that a lot of children are eating what’s being served. In the 2003 fiscal year, more than 28.4 million children ate hot lunch at school each day, according to the National School Lunch Program, which provides low-cost or free lunches to low-income students and lunches to those who pay full price. Those students hail from more than 99,800 public and private schools and childcare facilities across the country.

During a typical week in July at Kankakee School District 111, summer students could choose pork patties and a biscuit with mashed potatoes and gravy one day for lunch; a barbecued-rib sandwich with corn and fruit on another. Those menus follow the recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans: In a week of school lunches, no more than 30 percent of calories should come from fat, less than 10 percent from saturated fat. Lunches should also provide one-third of a child’s Recommended Dietary Allowance of protein, vitamins A and C, iron, calcium and calories.

"These are just general rules," says Roxanne Ramage, spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education nutrition services program, which administers state lunch program standards. "[Schools] have to serve a certain portion of protein, for instance, maybe it would be fish, turkey, beans or hamburger, but that is up to the local school district. Meals are planned in relation to the guidelines, but the specific food items are established at the local level."

Schools that abide by the federal guidelines are reimbursed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each meal they serve—anywhere from 21 cents per full-price meal to $2.24 for free meals. The schools may also receive some food items from the national agriculture stock and have the opportunity to purchase other foods at a discount.

Ramage says that has helped Illinois schools offer more fresh fruit and vegetables.

"Our buying power has even extended to being able to purchase low-cost green, red and yellow peppers for stir-fry and wonderful fruits like mango and papaya."

The survey says

Eric Peterson, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association in Alexandria, Va., says that, for the most part, schools should receive a passing grade for their hot lunch programs.

"They are doing a pretty good job," he says. "Parents out there know that it can be challenging pleasing one child when preparing meals, much less 400 students every day. Schools following the [National School Lunch] program have to juggle guidelines with budget, food safety issues and taste preferences, and while there are exceptions, most are doing that successfully."

According to Camille Reed, school food policy director at the Healthy Schools Campaign, hot lunch meals "are nutritious, as far as what we know."

A 2001 study by Alice Jo Rainville, a professor at Eastern Michigan University, found hot school lunches contain less fat, three times as many dairy products, twice as much fruit and seven times the vegetables compared with lunches brought from home.

Yet it is hard to know how objective the research is, since Rainville’s biography says she is a "spokesperson for the American School Food Service Association," an industry organization representing those who prepare school lunches.

Other research shows that although the school lunch program may have set the right standards, the program is not consistent. The most recent School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2001, indicated that only one in five elementary schools met the standards the program sets for the number of lunch calories that can come from fat, and just one in seven met the standards for calories from saturated fat.

While officials say school lunches have improved in the last seven years, the problem remains: The program has good intentions, but it isn’t able to effectively monitor the schools involved.

"Schools are audited just twice every five years," Peterson says. One of those two audits measures the finances of the program, which leaves just one to investigate whether schools are complying with nutritional guidelines.

Still not enough?

Davis and others think it’s a mistake to assume more audits alone will make our children’s lunches healthier.

"Parents are more important," she says. "They need to know what their kids are being served and decide themselves whether it is appropriate or not. Many schools have a locally elected school board selected by the community. Parents need to use the power that is implicit in that to demand change."

Doreen Berard, outpatient wellness dietitian at Edward Hospital and Health Services in Naperville, says change is necessary to protect the health of our children.

"The bottom line is childhood obesity is a problem, and it is on the incline. In response schools need to be offering students more education on nutrition, increase their activity levels and start serving foods that are prepared with less fat and salt, and more whole grain products."

Berard sees the problems from two very different perspectives--as the mom of a third-grader and kindergartner in the Naperville school district and as a member of the District 203 nutrition board.

The district is testing a new, healthier lunch program in two of its schools.

"They are supposed to be offering items like whole wheat crust pizza and cutting back on the fat and sodium in the meals," she says. "But I was a little bit discouraged as a dietitian that they are going to continue to offer students two meal items to choose from, and whatever does not get a good response is going to be taken off the menu. It seems like if they are offering tacos vs. a grilled chicken sandwich, kids will still choose tacos."

Knowing what she does about school lunches, Berard does not allow her children to eat hot lunch. "They have to pack their lunch every single day."

Jean Huesling, a registered nurse who is the owner of Camp Jump Start, a fitness and nutrition camp for kids located near downstate Carbondale, agrees.

"We tell the kids who come here, that are trying to change their eating habits, to pack their own lunch rather than eat hot lunch when they head back to school," she says. "Not all hot lunch programs are bad, but too many of them cater to kids who say they won’t eat turkey, just pizza with pepperoni on it. We have to be the adults here and start saying this is what is for lunch, and offer only healthy options."

Ramage contends schools are doing their best to improve.

"We have seen a shift toward higher-quality foods," she says. "And we are constantly pushing for items with higher nutritional value. More schools are serving low-fat milk, whole-grain products and fresh fruits and vegetables than ever before."

According to Peterson, parents should notice a difference this year, with more whole-grain products, low-fat cheese and salad bars.

"Some districts that weren’t trying these things before are doing so now because of the scrutiny regarding nutritional standards."

But far too many are not. Camp Jump Start registered dietitian Allison Fritschel says even those lunch programs that appear to be doing the healthy thing may not be doing it well enough. They may be offering vegetables, but too often, they’re the wrong ones, such as potatoes, peas and corn, she says.

"They metabolize in the body like bread or grain and turn to sugar. Many schools are still offering them as staples," Fritschel says.

The cost of competition

One thing hampering a change to healthier menus is the rivalry. Increasingly, schools operating their own break-even lunch programs must compete with outside vendors contracted by the school district. Those vendors often are not tied to any nutritional regulation standards at all, and are ready to ply students away from healthier options with cheesy fries and hamburgers.

Kristin Behmer, a board member of Batavia Public School District 101, has seen the cheesy fries take over.

"In our middle school, we had students eating three or four cheesy fries with soda pop for lunch and that was it," she says.

The school board, buoyed by parents and the principal, fought back.

They eliminated the sale of soft drinks during school hours, added a health-conscious deli sandwich line, reduced the portion size of cheesy fries and now require they to be purchased only with an entrée.

"We lost a lot of money after making that move—thousands, and it really surprised us," Behmer says.

The district is undaunted; it is still planning to introduce more health education in lower grades, a lunch-hour walking program at the high school and increased access to healthy food options at lunch so students don’t spend too much time waiting in line.

It is a dilemma that many schools face: break even or get healthier.

"Schools are offered commodity foods [as part of the National School Lunch program] that aren’t the healthiest choices," Davis says. "They have to rely on ingredients that make it really difficult to deliver a healthy meal."

Combine inadequate funding with a lack of adequate kitchens and trained staff, she says, and it’s easy to see the difficulties schools face when striving to prepare nutritious meals.

"Schools don’t receive a lot of reimbursement from the federal government to serve hot lunch, and, as nonprofit businesses, oftentimes have to look to other means of revenue to break even," Reed says. "That is where many á la carte items come in—fast-food additions to the federally funded meals."

Unhealthy preferences

Experts say that parents who send money to school for hot lunch might be surprised at where that cash goes.

"If the student prefers food from the vending machine or from the á la carte vendors, that is what they are buying," Reed says. "Our position at the Healthy Schools Campaign is that those vendor foods need to have the same nutritional guidelines that school meals do."

Contracting with vending machine companies that offer healthier options is another choice schools can make to combat the lure of junk food, she says.

The other attraction of vending machines and á la carte items are that they are fast, and the time kids have to eat lunch is increasingly limited.

"I am appalled about the lack of time that kids have to sit down and eat," Berard says.

"If they want to unwind and talk to their friends for a couple of minutes, it leaves just 10 minutes or so for them to wolf down their lunch," she says. "In one school I looked at they have this great salad bar but students have to wait in line 20 minutes just to go through it—so they choose something else."

"I’ve talked to principals at schools that have 20-minute lunches and they say if they open up half of the milk cartons it is a good day," Davis says.

"They just hope that the next day they open up the other half. If we offer healthy options but kids don’t have time to eat them, it won’t work," Davis says.

Not only are schools not giving students time to eat, experts say, but they are also not giving them time to move.

"Schools are eliminating recess, and even though there are physical education classes in the state of Illinois, there are all sorts of waivers and ways for kids to get around it," Huesling says.

"So our kids are eating unhealthy food and not getting enough physical activity. Combine that with the fact that we as parents tend to eat on the run and search for the closest parking spot ourselves—our children mimic what we do and not what we tell them to do," Huesling says.

Even in the best environments it can be tough to get kids to make healthy food choices, says pediatric nutritionist Patty Morse from Loyola University Medical Center.

"There is peer pressure at school to eat what the other kids are eating," she says. "I think that parents need to realize that they can affect that by offering their children a variety of healthy foods at home—that is where they learn how to eat."

Government officials are beginning to realize that greater priority needs to be placed on what kids learn about nutrition and what they eat while at school.

A new federal mandate requires all state schools to have a wellness policy in place before the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year. That policy must include: Nutrition guidelines for all foods sold on campus during the school day; school goals for nutrition education and physical activity; community participation in the establishment of these policies, and a plan to measure them.

A new School Wellness Policies Bill that passed the Illinois General Assembly in May, and signed by the governor in August, directs the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Department of Health and Human Services, and the Illinois Department of Public Health to develop and distribute model wellness policies to help schools through the process.

"Schools can positively impact student health. By improving nutrition and physical education and by creating health-based standards for the foods sold in schools, we can improve both student health and the learning environment," Davis says. "To continue to serve unhealthy foods and not teach basics of nutrition would be to act without regard for the next generation."

The proposed state bill also establishes a state task force to make long-term recommendations on nutrition standards and evaluate the impact of these new policies on students’ health.

Illinois is one of nine states to pass school-related obesity legislation in the past year.

"Go-getter schools will run with these requirements," Ramage says. "Some may include in their plan additional measures, such as offering only whole-grains twice a week, or something more. One of the important things is that the planning process includes community members, food service personnel, nurses and staff, and together they will present their recommendations to the school board for approval."

According to Reed, "This may not solve all of the problems the program faces, but it does require the entire school community to really take an introspective look at what they are doing and create policies that will be practical for their particular school, and hopefully healthier."

Get involved

It also provides the opportunity for parents concerned about the food served at their child’s school to speak up and be heard.

Davis says policies can make a difference. "It depends on how much concerned individuals get involved."

Davis suggests parents contact their school superintendent to find out who is working on the wellness policy for their district and then ask to get involved.

The Healthy School Campaign also has free kits available to parents that detail the basics of the law and include model wellness policies to help start the policy process.

"The kits give information about other Illinois laws that are relevant and offer step-by-step recommendations on how to go about creating a policy," she says.

Instead of mystery meat, jellied fruit cocktail and mashed potatoes swimming in gravy, very soon our kids might say, "Remember when we could have cheesy fries and soda for lunch? Remember hot dogs, sausage and white-flour pancakes, giant soft pretzels and nachos with processed cheese?"

If parents and school officials get involved now with creative solutions for positive change, maybe the answer will be: "Yeah—isn’t the food so much better now?"

Resource To order a model wellness policy kit from the Healthy Schools Campaign, visit

Heather Cunningham is an award-winning writer living in Batavia who writes frequently on parenting and health issues.

Home school administrators have already made healthy changes to the food and drink choices offered to their students. By next summer, all schools in the state will be required to have a wellness policy in place that may include ideas like these: • Last October the Chicago Board of Education authorized a new contract with the American Bottling Co. that permits only water, fruit juice and noncarbonated sports drinks to be offered in the vending machines in Chicago’s public schools.

Last summer, the board also set standards for the nutritional value of vending machine snacks, indicating that they must have no more than 30 percent of calories from fat per serving, 4 percent sugar by weight per serving and 480 milligrams of sodium per serving.

• Prairie School in Naperville recently piloted a healthy lunch program that includes items like quesadillas made with whole-wheat tortillas, salads and fresh fruit. Foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup, dyes and hydrogenated oils were removed from the menu.


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