Has the School Lunch Program Failed our Kids?

By Barbara Day, M.S., R.D., C.N.

       In the early 80s, I was a USDA School Lunch & Child Nutrition program reviewer for the Alaska Department of Education. I traveled all over Alaska to Indian & Eskimo villages and also to Anchorage and Fairbanks to review the School Lunch Program to ensure the children were getting a healthy meal, met the Federal Guidelines to qualify them for the USDA Federal reimbursements. In some cases, it was a shock how the food was prepared, how the serving plates & cooking utensils were cleaned, and how thankful some of the children were to just have a hot meal, any meal was appreciated.

Fast forward to what’s going on in School Lunch in school cafeterias all over the country today and  some of the choices wouldn’t exactly be on the top of my list for healthy choices. In fact, children today have so many choices, it’s amazing. I counted 8 entrée choices on the middle school menu that was posted online from August 2010.  At the top of the menu it was noted that “over a period of one week, the most popular menu items  average 864 calories and 27 grams of fat.” And that was just for lunch.

Yippee! Children will be Back In School, Soon!

School will start soon is Jefferson County. Parents will be faced with the question to send a packed lunch or buy the school lunch. Menus and nutritional information is posted at http://www.jefferson.k12.ky.us/departments/nutritionservices/education.  As a parent, you could look at the daily menu online or sent home to determine what is being offered in the cafeteria. If your child is getting free or reduced meals, the choice may be cost over choice.

The Scoop on the School Lunch Reimbursable Meal

School Breakfast Menus Breakfast is made up of three menu items. A choice of any two or three items constitutes a meal. Milk and juice are always two of the available choices. Other items include muffins, toast, cereal, eggs, biscuits, and sweet rolls.

School Lunch Menus All lunches when averaged over a one-week time period meet the requirement of 30 percent or less calories deriving from fat and 10 percent or less calories deriving from saturated fat. Lunches meet one-third of the daily recommended allowance for calories, protein, iron, calcium, and vitamins A & C.

To meet USDA guidelines, lunches include the following:

  • Entrée
  • Choice of one or two fruits or vegetables
  • Milk, available in skim and 1% flavored and unflavored.

Students are encouraged to select a complete lunch; however, under federal regulations, they are allowed to choose two or three items as a full meal. A minimum of one entree and one additional item must be selected. A minimum of 3 components for breakfast must be selected to qualify for a federally reimbursable meal. A choice of 100% fruit juice, skim or 1% milk and a bread item or breakfast entrée is offered daily.

Regular price of a breakfast meal is $1.75 or $.30 if your child qualifies for reduced priced meals. Regular price of a breakfast meal is $2.25 or $.40 if your child qualifies for reduced priced meals.

Calories Should be Provided at the Point of Purchase in the School Cafeteria

       Under the Affordable Care Act, all food chain restaurants are required to post calories on the menu boards beginning in 2014, no matter what the cost is to the restaurants.

Since our children eat lunch and sometimes breakfast at school five day a week during the school year, the posting of calories on the cafeteria menu boards and for each item on the menus posted online should be required.  It would be easier for the parents and the children to make healthier choices.

Some of the menu choices are high in calories by themselves. These entrée selections need to be added with additional foods to make up a reimbursable meal.  But whether a meal is high in calories or not is determined by how many calories the child needs (to include their activity calories, too) and how many calories they are also eating at home.

Here are some entrée choices from the Jefferson County Nutrition Services Menus from last year.  Examples:  Chicken Pot Pie (493 calories), Breaded Pork Patty (337 calories), Ham & Cheese Hoagie (339 calories), Hot Ham & Cheese Sandwich (374 calories), Chicken Bites with Whole Grain Roll (797 calories), Chicken Patty Fillet with Bun (623 calories) and Chicken Strips of Fire with Whole Grain Roll (703 calories).

For breakfast when you add the entrée with milk, and fruit some of the choices can end being high calorie: 2 Pop Tarts (400 calories), Bagel (330 calories), Banana Muffin (359 calories), Orange Cranberry Muffin (465 calories), Biscuit with Sausage (324 calories). Plus the schools typically offer desserts like brownies, cookies, Teddy Grahams®, ice cream, snack foods like baked chips, Goldfish®, pretzels, and popcorn.

How Many Calories Do Your Kids Need to Eat Each Day?

The parent and child need to understand how many calories the child actually needs per day.  Here’s a helpful calculator:  http://pediatrics.about.com/library/bl_calorie_calc.htm

If childhood obesity is going to be decreased in our children, strategies like this are going to be critical.

Here’s an Online School Lunch Tool to Track Calories for Each Meal

The Nutri-Café provides a virtual view of your school cafeteria, actual food items offered, and pricing information! Create a meal by placing items on your tray and compare the nutritional values versus the USDA recommended daily allowances. By using this interactive tool, students are encouraged to make healthy food choices that will last a lifetime. Your School Nutrition Department offers a variety of wonderful, healthy food items every day and by using Nutri-Café parents and students can select the food items that best meet their needs from the comfort of their home. http://www.nutri-cafe.com/ChooseSchool.aspx?State=KY&DistrictID=37

Healthier School Lunch Recipes Available

You can get healthier school lunch recipes at http://www.thelunchbox.org/. These recipes make larger portions.

Image from: http://www.extension.umn.edu/source/winter09/winter09-04.html

Barbara Day, M.S., R.D., C.N, is a registered dietitian (www.DayByDayNutrition.com) who has been teaching healthy lifestyles strategies to consumers for over 35+ years. Check out Barbara’s new healthy lifestyles website: www.KentuckianaHEALTHwellness.com.