There’s no doubt that childhood obesity has put the spotlight on the National School Lunch Program.
But is all that you hear true? Is the food children are getting at school so terrible?
I’ve taken a closer look at the School Lunch Program since starting this blog. This is partly due to my partnership with Schoolmenu.com a website that posts menus and nutrition education information (by school district), in many cases the nutritional content of menu items is also shown.
After talking to several school Food Service Directors, I’m dying to share what’s really going on in school cafeterias across America. And I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
1. Schools have to meet nutrition standards: In 1996, legislation was passed mandating schools to provide meals that contain 1/3rd the Recommended Daily Allowances for key nutrients including calories, protein, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C. The nutrition standards also limit total fat (30% of calories or less) and saturated fat (10% of calories or less). Schools are encouraged, but not required, to reduce levels of cholesterol and sodium and increase the amounts of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and dietary fiber.
Everyone agrees that these standards need to be revised as they are still based on the 1995 Dietary Guidelines. The Institute of Medicine has developed recommendations to update the nutrition standards to reflect recent dietary guidelines. Those changes should be coming soon.
2. Money is tight: Most parents don’t realize that Food Service Directors, like CEOs, are running a million-dollar business. If the district has 20, 50, or 100 schools, that means operating that many cafeterias. Their job is to provide low cost, nutritious meals to school-aged kids.
“I have $1.68 to spend on each meal,” says Wanda Grant, dietitian, and Director of Food Services for Palm Springs Unified School District. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are hard on the budget but I find ways to include them”
Cindy Hobbs, Executive Director of Child Nutrition Services for Charlotte Mecklenburg County schools in North Carolina, runs 170 schools and serves 130,000 daily meals. While the government pays for half of her budget, the other half comes from items sold a la carte.
“Unfortunately, many items like fruits and vegetables are not kids’ favorites (don’t sell),” she says. “But when possible we try to improve the nutrition of all the (snack) foods we offer by using whole wheat flour and lowering the fat.”
3. Not every food is what it appears to be: Food Service Directors often receive parental complaints about the junk they serve. Yet in order to meet the nutrition standards, and please kids, they need to be creative. That means the pizza is made with whole grains and reduced-fat cheese. Grant says that she strives to make half of the grains she serves to her students whole grains, which is consistent with current dietary guidelines.
The quality of meals has improved drastically from 20 years ago when fried chicken was the best seller with French fries not far behind. Hobbs has been active in changing how food is prepared in schools.
“There are no fryers in our elementary and secondary schools,” she says. “We still have some work to do with some of our high schools but soon there will be no fryers in any of our schools. All they are frying these days are French fries but that won’t last too long.”
4. Schools hire registered dietitians: School districts employ nutrition professionals like Grant, who is a registered dietitian. In larger districts like Hobbs’ there are usually multiple dietitians, who are responsible for creating the regular menus, while others are in charge of special diets and education.
Parents ought to know that the people preparing and planning meals for kids are educated in the area of health and nutrition.
5. School food service workers are a dedicated bunch: School nutrition professionals are a hard-working group of people. Most have been in their jobs for more than 20 years. However, there are lots of new highly trained young directors coming into this growing profession. And while they all say that improvements are needed, they seem to love what they do.
Unfortunately, most of the press on school lunch is negative so they get little recognition. But there’s a lot of good stuff going on behind the scenes. And that deserves some press, too.
To see what the kids in Grant and Hobb’s Districts are eating at school go to SchoolMenu.com and where it says “quickly view a school’s menu” enter California, for “district” enter Palm Springs and then select any school, Enter North Carolina, for “district”. enter Charlotte-Mecklenberg and select any school. If you would like more information on how your district can participate in the schoolmenu.com program send an email to email@example.com for all the details.