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 the 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 were encouraged, but not required, to reduce levels of cholesterol and sodium and increase the amounts of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and dietary fiber.
Everyone agreed that these standards needed to be revised as they were still based on the 1995 Dietary Guidelines. And in 2012 they were updated.
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 protected] for all the details.
Dora Rivas, RD, SNS – SNA President says
Thank you Maryann for helping to spread the good news about school meals! As president of the School Nutrition Association, I have seen school meals programs nationwide show tremendous creativity and innovation in developing healthy, enticing school meals. Many schools are finding success with student taste tests, recipe contests, ethnic menu choices, school gardens or farm-to-school programs. As you highlighted, school meals programs working to further enhance nutrition face enormous challenges. These programs have strict budgets, limited resources and in some cases antiquated equipment to fulfill their needs. The national average cost to prepare a school lunch is $2.92, but the federal reimbursement for each free lunch served is only $2.68. SNA is calling on Congress to increase this reimbursement rate during Child Nutrition Reauthorization this Spring so students can enjoy an even wider variety of healthy foods.
I have to second Dora’s comments about the Child Nutrition Reauthorization. Schools need more money for better food. Without getting more resources into school food, school food programs will continue to loose money, resources will be siphoned away from education programs, and schools will be unable to make improvements to implement the new Institute of Medicine recommendations.
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
Dora and Mark,
Thanks for your insight! This will help parents better understand the challenges school meals programs face.
Wanda Grant, RD says
Thank you for telling our story. School Food Service is not what is used to be. The variety of choices and the focus on healthy safe foods has really advanced the school lunch and breakfast programs. With menu choices, participation increases and the stigma of being a low income student is less. In spite of all the advancements, school meal programs are here to feed children not garbage cans. The items we offer must be acceptable and desirable by the students. We rely strongly on our industry partners to not only provide superior desireable meal items, but to assist in the introduction and promotion of those products.
Again thank you for your being involved in our mission of educating both the students and parents about our exceptional school meal programs.
Mike Craig says
I’ve always noticed a distinction between perception and reality. The reality is that school nutrition programs are improving. The perception is that they have not. Perception trumps reality when a parent is trying to decide between making lunch from home or letting their kid’s eat “manager’s choice” at school.
How are programs better communicating this reality to parents?
Thanks for sharing some facts. Children benefit from the school lunch, and if parents would take the time to find out the nutrient profile of the offerings, they would be pleasantly surprised. There are standards.
Sure, there is also always room for improvements, so if parents are concerned, they should volunteer their time to their school district.