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The Feud Over Food

The truth about the school lunch wars.

Serving meals and snacks at school is fraught with politics and pitfalls. While the battle rages in school cafeterias over menu choices, beverage sales, vending foods, and outright bans on what students can buy or even bring to school, there is some good news. More school districts are reducing the number of fried foods, increasing the levels of fruits and vegetables, and paying attention to fat, calories and the sugar content of the meals they serve. In 2009, the School Nutrition Association found that, nationwide, nearly every school district offers students fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and salad bars or pre-packaged salads.

Even a-la-carte foods have received a makeover. Vending machine snacks have been replaced with smaller serving sizes or more nutritious foods, and soda is no longer king. A 2008 survey of middle- and high-school principals in 40 states conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the number of schools limiting carbonated soft drinks had increased to 63 percent from 38 percent in 2006.

While there has been progress, the survey also found large variations in access to junk food in public schools. Self-reported data from the CDC survey found that, in some states, such as Connecticut, Hawaii and Maine, students could not purchase candy and salty snacks at more than 80 percent of schools; however, this was true in only 18 percent of schools in Utah. To bridge that gap, some factions are fighting to increase prohibitions and block student access to less healthy snack foods and beverage options.

“We know that states with laws regulating the competitive food environment are doing well,” writes American Heart Association President Clyde Yancy. “Strong public policy initiatives could close the gap in areas that have yet to improve nutrition standards.”

Legislation or Education?

On the other hand, some critics decry overarching policies, such as the recent New York City ban on school bake sales. According to various published news reports and blogs on the subject, many parents resent the intrusion the so-called “food police” have made into some classrooms across the nation where birthday cupcakes are now forbidden.

“There are a lot of reasons our kids are getting fat,” said Texas state Rep. Jim Dunnam when he championed a 2005 law called the Safe Cupcake Amendment to let Texas children bring sweets to school on their birthdays. “Cupcakes aren’t one of them.”

Some schools have even taken to peeping inside lunch bags. For example, one Bronx, N.Y. middle school, the Academy of Applied Math and Technology, which claims to promote “critical thinking skills, decision-making skills and effective communication,” does not allow students to bring potato chips, cookies, candy or soft drinks to school even for their own consumption, according to the school’s Web site.

Many parents believe that outright bans are not the correct way to fight obesity, and suggest that the push to legislate food in schools may do more harm in the end, believing that, as Mark Twain noted, “There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable... In fact, the more things are forbidden, the more popular they become.”

Chef Ann Cooper, interim director of nutritional services of the Boulder (Colo.) Valley School District and self-named "renegade lunch lady," has transformed the menu in Boulder, in part adding more salads, fresh fruits and vegetables.

In truth, tackling obesity is more complicated than creating lists of foods that “thou shalt not eat.” No studies prove that children who eat more fruits and vegetables are thinner than classmates who eat only french fries and milkshakes. “Poor diet and physical inactivity may not be primary causes of the current obesity epidemic,” writes Tom Baranowski in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (2009). Ethnicity, genetics and geography also play a role.

One study summarized in a 2009 article in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity suggests that cutting out the fat in children's diets may not be the best strategy for fighting obesity. Dr. Benjamin Caballero, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, measured food consumption at school lunches. In his article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Caballero suggests that students ate more food to make up for the fat calories they did not consume. Although the jury is out on whether low-fat, low-sodium, low-sugar foods will reverse student obesity trends, everyone agrees that school lunches could be better.

Millions Dissatisfied

According to a 2009 survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association, in more than 80 percent of the nation’s schools, fewer than half of the entrees are cooked from scratch. To reverse that trend, dozens of celebrity chefs have promoted the values of slow-cooked lunches, organic salads, and the use of fresh ingredients for school lunch programs instead of relying heavily on processed food and surplus commodities.

Chef Ann Cooper, interim director of nutritional services for the Boulder (Colo.) Valley School District, is at the forefront of a movement to transform the National School Lunch Program into one that emphasizes the health of students “over the financial health of agribusiness corporations,” by getting back to basics. Instead of paying businesses to turn USDA commodities into processed foods, the self-named “renegade lunch lady” strives to change middle and high school food programs that are “dominated by a-la-carte offerings that resemble mini-marts more than school cafeterias,” Cooper says.

Cooper eschews the typical school menu based on processed commodities such as pizza, burritos, chicken nuggets and meat patties. Since arriving in Boulder, Cooper has transformed the menu and added more salads, fresh fruits and vegetables. Her menus emphasize regional and organic foods and whole grains. “When we serve macaroni and cheese, it is made from scratch,” she says.

Jamie Oliver, a British celebrity chef who attempted to reform school meals in the United Kingdom, is working with schools in West Virginia to replace reheated processed foods with meals cooked from scratch, and to eliminate junk food in vending machines and cafeterias. Oliver’s U.K. campaign led to a 2006 school ban on chocolate, potato chips, soft drinks and poor-quality meats—which were replaced with healthier options such as chicken and fish—and a twice-weekly restriction of deep-fried foods.

While his effort was laudable, Oliver admits that despite the additional billion dollars spent by the British government to improve school lunches, the results were not as expected. Figures published by the School Food Trust show that most pupils are still turning up their noses at the healthy options espoused by Oliver and the government. They prefer to bring their own packed lunches or buy junk food outside school grounds. Only 43 percent of primary school children are eating school dinners in the United Kingdom—a rise of just 0.1 percent.

Julian High School students in Chicago create their healthy school lunch at the Cooking up Change culinary competition last fall, as part of Chicago's Healthy Schools Campaign.

In rough economic times, it may be a better strategy for a school district in the United States to increase a student’s consumption of fruit by serving a month’s worth of applesauce for the same price as a one-day supply of sliced watermelon.

A report from the Institute of Medicine released in October proposes updating school meal programs in the nation to foster better eating habits. However, the institute’s proposals for fresher ingredients could boost the cost of school breakfast by as much as 25 percent and lunch by 9 percent. Also, many schools have neither the staff nor the equipment to start boiling chickens at 7 a.m. for soup and salads to serve at noon, and many districts must rely on outside firms and use the USDA’s commodity exchange program to cut down on prep costs, according to USDA’s Web site and various news articles.

Recently, Congress extended the Child Nutrition Act, which included $25 million to help schools purchase cafeteria equipment and upgrade their facilities to better support healthy school meals. States will be able to purchase equipment to store, prepare and serve healthy foods with assistance grants available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Using The USDA to Their Benefit

Despite the benefits of freshly made food, making the transition from “heat and serve” to a “made from scratch” cooking program may not be possible for every district. For many districts, the key to better school lunches may well lie in learning to work with available resources and making better choices from available USDA commodity and food processing lists, something Chef Ann Cooper follows.

In Baltimore City Public Schools, Food and Nutrition Services Director Tony Geraci has adopted “Meatless Mondays” to stretch the district’s food budget and help students become aware of healthy eating habits. Once a week, Baltimore’s 80,000 schoolchildren dine on baked potatoes with broccoli and cheese, vegetable lasagna, pasta primavera, or vegetarian chili with rice instead of the usual suspects: Philly cheese steak and chicken nuggets.

And school chefs often remind critics that no matter how delicious the food might be to adults, it must appeal to the palate of a middle school student.

Appealing to that palate is the reason behind the Healthy Schools Campaign’s Cooking up Change, an annual contest in Chicago. Fifteen teams of public high school students compete by preparing a school meal based on the same ingredients, cost restrictions and nutrition guidelines that Chicago food service directors face. The winning meal in the 2009 contest— vegetable and chicken jambalaya, jalapeno cornbread and cucumber salad created by student chefs from Tilden Career Academy— will be served throughout the Chicago schools’ district later this month and to students nationwide in late spring.

There are many paths toward building a better, more nutritious school lunch, and not all of them demand extra resources. The food police will continue their battle for the mouths and minds of children, in their quest for the perfect school lunch. However, the best school lunch will always be the one that can pass the kid taste test, the cost test, and the nutritional demands of the National School Lunch Program—because if students won’t eat it, and the costs aren’t reimbursed, the cafeteria can’t and won’t survive financially.

Stephanie Johns is a freelance writer based in Mountain Lakes, N.J.