Grading the Cafeteria
Dr. Tim Radak, nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington D.C., is on the committee. It's not just the school lunches that are the problem, he said. Students end up getting soft drinks from vending machines at many schools. "Two major studies clearly show that the increase in soft-drink consumption is associated with obesity in kids", he said.
Grading the cafeteria: How healthy is your child's lunch?
But local school officials and food-service directors disagree. They say their school districts do a good job of giving their students healthy lunches.
Antonia Demas, president of the Food Studies Institute in Trumansburg, N.Y., points to the bulging waist lines of schoolchildren as proof that school lunches are unhealthy.
"There is vast room and need for improvement with school meals," Demas said.
"I think they should totally ban french fries. There is no food value in them whatsoever," she said. "They are just deep fried and empty calories."
Ten years ago, it was found that fat accounted for 40 percent of the calories served in school lunches. The federal government then mandated that no more than 30 percent of the calories can come from fat during a school week. Saturated fat has to account for less than 10 percent of calories during a school week.
But Demas said school lunches still are high in fat content. So much so, she said, that Congress has mandated that every public school district by 2006 establish a wellness committee to make recommendations on improving school lunches.
A 1999 USDA survey found only 20 percent of the lunches served in school cafeterias stayed within the required limits on fat and only 15 percent stayed within saturated fat limits.
Lean meat, low-fat cheese and fresh produce often cost more than full-fat and processed foods.
But even offering healthy food won't work without educating students about what foods are good for them, Demas said.
"It is unfair, I think, for the public just to attack food service without addressing the lack of education in the classroom," she said. "You have to expose them to the taste so it becomes a pleasurable experience to eat what is healthy. If you put the good stuff out without education, the kids are not going to take it."
Like many other school districts, the Cape Girardeau Public Schools rely on a computer program to build their menu and meet U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition and calorie requirements.
Lisa Elfrink, food services coordinator for the Cape Girardeau school system, said she first looks at what foods students like in planning the meals.
Favorite foods include pizza, cheeseburger and bread sticks, she said.
"A new item for us is chicken nuggets," said Elfrink. But even those are better than the nuggets at fast-food restaurants, she said.
"All of our items are baked," said Elfrink. The only exception are the french fries served at the high school, she said.
"We try to do fresh veggies once a week. We try to do fresh fruit," the food service director said of elementary school meals.
Starting in fifth grade, fresh fruit and vegetables are offered on the menu daily, Elfrink said.
"We always have apples, oranges, grapes and toward the end of the week we will have bananas," she said.
The district serves more than 2,400 school lunches daily during the school week.
"I really think that school lunches are much better than they used to be," she said.
Where Cape Girardeau schools once offered real butter with their rolls, they now serve a less fattening spread, Elfrink said.
But she said school cafeterias can't ignore what children want to eat or else the food will go to waste. "You don't want to feed the trash can," Elfrink said.
Fourth grader Brianna Shaw at Franklin Elementary School said she does not like vegetables but really likes crispitos, a baked chicken-chili tortilla food item with low-fat cheese sauce.
"It's the best thing they have here," she said.
First-grader Dalan Thompson said he likes his school lunch and would like to see more of his favorite food, fish, on the menu.
Fourth-grader Dylan Wachter said he likes the pizza the best because they have good cheeses.
Congress created the National School Lunch Program in 1946 to fight childhood malnutrition. The Department of Agriculture subsidizes schools with cash reimbursements and free food commodities. It also oversees the nutritional content of meals.
Schools nationwide serve more than 27 million lunches a day. A group of physicians is working with the USDA to craft new dietary guidelines.
Dr. Tim Radak, nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., is on the committee.
It's not just school lunches that are the problem, he said. Students end up getting soft drinks from vending machines at many schools.
"Two major studies clearly show that the increase in soft-drink consumption is associated with obesity in kids," he said.
The American Beverage Association recommends limiting the availability of soft drinks in schools. It suggests schools offer low-calorie juices, bottled water and sports drinks.
Cape Girardeau school officials say that's already being done locally.
There are no soft-drink vending machines in Cape Girardeau's middle and elementary schools.
Vending machines in the school lunch rooms at the junior high and high school are stocked with water and other non-carbonated beverages.
"Plain water has become a huge seller on our campus," said Dr. Mike Cowan, Cape Girardeau Central High School principal. Students can bring bottled water into the classrooms, but no other drink, he said.
Soft drinks are available in some vending machines outside of the food court. But they are regulated by a timer so students can only purchase sodas before or after school, Cowan said.
The new high school has a closed campus which means high school students can't leave campus for a fast-food lunch. School officials said that has contributed to a healthier diet for high school students.
At Scott City High School, school lunches are provided by a private food service, OPAA Food Service Management of St. Louis.
Brenda Arnzen, food service director at the school, said the menu includes fruits and vegetables. Chef salads are on the menu daily. Wraps rather than traditional sandwiches have become popular with the students, she said.,
In the Jackson public schools, students are offered fresh fruits and vegetables at all grade levels.
The school district was one of 19 schools in Missouri to get an allotment of fresh fruits and vegetables under a new federal program.
Jackson School district food service director Liz Aufdenberg said today's school lunches aren't to blame for childhood obesity.
Too many children don't get enough exercise, she said.
They also eat a lot of fast food when they're not at school. "They are growing up in a super-sized world," said Aufdenberg. "They don't know what a regular portion is."
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