Are School Lunches Setting Kids Up for Obesity and Poor Nutrition?
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However, the Obama administration should not stop there. Even with current weak nutrition standards, only 30 percent of schools serve lunches that meet the saturated fat standard and only 6 to 7 percent of schools serve lunches meeting all of the government's standards. Presumably, raising the bar alone will result in fewer schools meeting federal standards, not more. The government needs to find out why schools are failing to serve healthy lunches and then work to provide them with the tools they need to do so.
In some cases, the Obama administration is already on it. For example, Vilsack recently called for more grants to help schools upgrade their kitchen equipment. Kitchens equipped to do little more than reheat food are one of the reasons school lunches are so poor. Grant money to upgrade kitchens can lead to healthier school food, particularly if enough money is allocated in the grant program to reach a large number of schools.
However, federal oversight should be exercised to ensure that the kitchen upgrades actually lead to healthier foods. A recent Washington Post column described a D.C. school kitchen that was upgraded to serve "fresh cooked" meals but actually did little more than assembling and heating unhealthy, processed ingredients. Baked ziti consisted of beef crumbles ("grayish-brown bits of extruded meat and soy protein") mixed with egg noodles and "a six-pound can of pale-looking spaghetti sauce" containing "dextrose and/or high-fructose corn syrup [and] potato or corn starch," topped with cheese. Clearly, kitchen equipment is needed but it's just a first step toward reform.
Vilsack also calls for providing more commodities (food purchased by the USDA and provided directly to schools), particularly to the school breakfast program. USDA-provided food will certainly help schools stretch the approximately $1 per meal they have to spend on food (the rest of their money goes to equipment and labor), but it won't help schools meet nutrition goals unless the USDA provides nutritious food.
Unfortunately, this is currently not the case. The commodities the USDA provides to schools make up about 20 percent of food served in lunches. A review of commodities provided to California schools found that a few items comprise the majority of commodities provided: coarse and fine ground raw beef (26 percent), low moisture part skim & light mozzarella (13 percent), small and large chilled chickens (11 percent), and barrels, blocks and slices of yellow or white cheddar cheese (10 percent). In fact, USDA commodities provided for school lunches turn the USDA's own food pyramid on its head. Whereas the food pyramid recommends a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, the USDA usually provides schools with meat and dairy products often high in saturated fat. Only 13 percent of commodities provided are fruits and vegetables (including fruit juice and legumes) -- and about half of the vegetables provided are potatoes.
The problem with commodities is two-fold. It's true that schools choose to order highly processed items from the USDA, but the USDA also offers very few healthy options. Of the 44 listed meats offered, only six are described as lean. Only 11 percent of fruits offered do not contain added sugars, and only 19 percent of grains offered were whole grains. And over half of the commodities go to processing facilities before they reach schools, frequently adding salt, sugar or trans fat to the food.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (author of the study that revealed this information) recommends that Congress "set a required proportion among the major food groups to which school districts must adhere when ordering commodities" to bring the commodities back in balance with the government's own nutrition recommendations. They also ask that the USDA "improve the nutritional quality of individual commodities, aligning them with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans."