by Maryann Jacobson, MS RD (updated October 1, 2010)
There’s no doubt that childhood obesity, First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, popular TV shows and a move by many well-meaning groups calling for the serving of more fresh fruits and veggies has put the spotlight on the National School Lunch Program.
But is all that you hear true?
I’ve taken a closer look at the School Lunch Program due to my partnership with Schoolmenu.com.
After talking to several school Food Service Directors, I want 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 strict nutrition standards: When Harry Truman was President, 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 limits 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, the US Department of Agriculture and the national School Nutrition Association have developed recommendations to update the nutrition standards to reflect recent dietary guidelines. Those changes should be coming soon.
"School nutrition professionals across this country are working miracles every day, stretching limited funds to assemble nutritious meals that fuel our children’s school days, but in the face of rising food costs and evolving nutrition standards, school nutrition programs need additional support,” said School Nutrition Association President Nancy Rice, M.Ed., RD, LD, SNS, State Director of the Georgia Department of Education, School Nutrition Division. “We can no longer afford to voice our concerns about rising rates of childhood obesity and the need to promote healthier lifestyles at school without investing in the programs that reach children in their school cafeterias each day. It is imperative that Congress and the Administration work together to pass a strong, improved Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill.”
As Congress delays passage of Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation, the US Department of Agriculture continues to develop updated nutrition standards for school meals. Those revised standards are expected to require more servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The Institute of Medicine’s recommendations for these standards acknowledges the need to increase funding for school meal programs to help meet the nutrition targets.
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.
When you consider the cost of a school meal, consider your ability as a parent to duplicate what is being offered for that price! and consider further that fresh fruits and vegetables are hard on the budget, but you must find ways to include them.
Directors are constantly looking for ways to improve their menus while considering the constraints of budgets and availability of certain items.
3. Not every food is what it appears to be: Food Service Directors often receive parental complaints about the food 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. Often the corn dogs are wrapped in whole wheat and the "dog" is a "turkey dog." Milk served is usually non-fat or low fat. All juices are 100% juice. Fried food are out and baked are in.
The quality of meals has improved drastically from 20 years ago when fried chicken was the best seller with French fries not far behind. One of the many features of the schoolmenu.com web site is that it shows the nutritional content of the items being served.
4. Schools hire registered dietitians: School districts employ nutrition professionals and registered dietitians in determining their menus. In larger districts, 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. Many have years of experience. And there are lots of new highly trained young directors coming into this growing profession. And while they all say that improvements are needed, they 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.
What You Need to Know About School Lunch
by Maryann Jacobson, MS RD (updated October 1, 2010)