Healthy-School-Lunch.. - East End Food Co-op

Healthy School Lunches
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current issue here>
Smack in the middle of a child's busy day of work and play we have an opportunity to foster his
or her well-being—and provide a hands-on nutrition lesson—with a healthful meal. A school
lunch program, which provides at least one third of most kids' calories for the day, can boost
intake of key nutrients and help kids perform better academically and in extracurricular
activities. Most importantly, it can promote good health now and in the future.
Unfortunately, many school lunch programs fall far short of this potential, serving meals that are
high in saturated fats and cholesterol and low in essential nutrients and fiber. Rather than
contribute to our children's health and well being, these school lunch programs are putting kids at
higher risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic disease, while teaching them
nothing about smart food choices.
Why would a school serve kids a lunch that's anything less than perfectly nutritious? Here's what
you might want to know:
Failing Grade Excuses
The National School Lunch Program, which shapes most school lunches in this country, was
established in 1946. It provides federal support (via financial aid and surplus foods) to schools
that serve USDA-approved meals. Thanks to the program, 28 million children receive lunch in
school every day.
Participation in the program is voluntary. In order to receive federal funding via reimbursed cash
subsidies and agricultural commodities, participating school lunch programs must meet The
Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which currently require that a school lunch meet one third of
the recommended daily allowance of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories.
In addition, no more than 30 percent of the calories may be from fat, and no more than 10
percent may be from saturated fats. While many experts believe that these guidelines are far from
adequate, the USDA's own assessments report that 80 percent of schools, by exceeding the
guidelines for fat intake, are not meeting them. Ironically, the government itself is largely to
Much of the food served in school lunch programs comes from the USDA's commodities
program, in which millions of pounds of surplus meat——in particular beef, pork, and other
high-fat meat products—are purchased from farmers and then distributed to qualifying schools.
Other commodities include canned goods that are high in salt and/or sugar, and refined white
flour, noodles, and rice. Few are healthy, low-fat, cholesterol-free, fiber-rich fruits and
vegetables or whole grain products. School food service programs work with tight budgets. With
less nutritious products provided at a fraction of the cost of the healthier options, it's easy to
understand why a lunch program would serve canned, sweetened fruit rather than fresh or a highfat, fiber-free hamburger rather than lean-meat or veggie burger, for example.
The government isn't solely to blame for the poor performance of school lunch programs, of
course. The influence of the press (including commercial ads shown on Channel One in schools),
peer pressure, and the desire to make money all play important roles. Because schools must only
meet the government standards for foods that are subsidized, they're free to use fast foods (often
served in a la carte menus) and soda and snack food vending machines to raise cash—at the
expense of kids' nutrition.
Decisions about what to serve in school lunches are made by local school lunch staff, and they're
influenced by training, background, availability of food, budget, and personal preferences. The
old Food Group model is most often used for meal planning. Because this model centers
planning around meat and dairy products, resulting meals are often higher in saturated fats and
lower in vitamins and minerals than meals based on more modern, nutrient-based models, which
focus on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes.
Needs Improvement
Many experts have evaluated school lunch programs, and report cards vary from school to
school. In general, the following recommendations surface:
School Lunches Need More: Fresh vegetables and fresh and dried fruits; whole grains; legumes.
A variety of foods—high in different nutrients; 100 percent fruit juice; fresh water with every
meal; calcium-rich, non-dairy milk alternatives, like fortified juices, soymilk, rice milk; foods
that are high in fiber, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants; low-fat vegetarian and vegan entrees;
low-fat versions of condiments and deli-meats (if offered); healthful snacks such as yogurts,
veggies and dip, air-popped popcorn, baked snacks.
School Lunches Need Less: Foods that are high in saturated fats, cholesterol, sugar, salt, and
calories; refined foods; fried foods; fruit drinks and sodas; meat and poultry.
Other recommendations suggest excluding irradiated foods and purchasing organic foods
whenever available. And to facilitate healthful eating, the school cafeteria should be a pleasant
place to eat, with adequate time allotted for kids to sit and enjoy their lunches.
Earn an E for Effort
If your child's school lunch program isn't stellar, you can improve its grade. To get going:
Eat at school. Evaluate the program.
Talk with your child about what he or she likes and doesn't like about school lunches.
Explain—in terms that make good sense to your child—why a healthful lunch is such a
good idea. (Tell her that she'll run better in track, perform better on her tests, and feel
more alert in that afternoon class, for example.)
Serve healthful foods at home—for breakfast, for after school snacks, and for dinner.
Be a good role model for your child, by eating well yourself both at home and when
eating out.
Work with other parents and teachers. Join the PTA (which is supportive of improving
school lunches) and form a nutrition committee, if your school doesn't already have one.
(If it does, they'll be happy for your energy.) Push for healthy lunches as well as
programs that teach kids about nutrition.
Support food service providers. Tell them you appreciate their work and would like to
help make the program the best it can be. (Don't be adversarial.) Contact your district
food service director for information and input, too.
Talk with the school administration. Explain that you believe that good nutrition for
children should be a priority in the school budget. Work to remove fast food, junk food
and soda vending machines. Suggest that the school provide training programs for food
service workers. Many schools have a wellness policy (relating to physical activity levels
as well as nutrition). Ask to see your school's; it will likely state support of your
Contact your government representatives. Voice your opinion that the federal
government should prioritize the health of school children over the subsidization of
agribusiness. Tell them that any USDA purchases on behalf of children should foster
their health rather than threaten it.
A Couple of Good Tutors
Citizens for Healthy Options in Children's Education : provides menus,
information, support for food service persons, teachers, and parents.
"The Healthy School Lunch Campaign,":: sponsored by
the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), provides meal planning and recipe
ideas, marketing materials, and other support to school and government officials, food service
workers, and parents.
Article by: © National Cooperative Grocers Association