Feeding Our Children: Healthier school lunches come at a costFruits. Vegetables. Cooking from scratch. Those are the tools in the fight against child obesity. Yet in lunchrooms across the Northland, school districts must weigh the benefits of healthier meals against the cost and time savings of processed lunches.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
Lakewood Elementary fifth-grader Clair Leneau picked at her food, eating two bites of hotdog and all of her kiwi before deciding she was through. Chandler Metzer ate his two slider-style hot dogs and collected strawberries from tablemates who didn’t eat theirs.
Such is the typical lunch at most schools on any given day: pick over, trade, eat some, toss.
Though offerings of fresh fruit and veggies are evidence of progress from the early days of hot lunch, reformers say school-
prepared meals still are too salty, fatty and processed in an age when childhood obesity is a crisis.
Kate Adamick is a New York City-based food reform consultant who travels to school districts across the country to help them serve scratch cooking. She’s a lawyer and professional chef.
While school districts generally meet USDA guidelines for school food, “the current standards are extremely low,” she said. “So meeting them is no accomplishment.”
A typical school lunch of chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes, chocolate milk and canned fruit cocktail makes a reimbursable meal, according to the government.
“Those are our standards,” Adamick said, noting that the current generation of American children is the first expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
Recommendations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update nutrition standards were made last fall by the Institute of Medicine. The institute found that a typical school lunch contains twice as much sodium as it recommends. Schools should increase servings and types of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, reduce saturated fat and sodium, and set a minimum and maximum level of calories, the institute says.
“Sodium is probably going to become (schools’) hardest nutrient issue,” said Karen Johnson a registered dietitian with St. Luke’s hospital in Duluth. If the recommendations are used, “this will make some of those convenience items less practical because it won’t fit into the guidelines.”
Cooking from scratch
The Duluth school district serves about 4,225 lunches a day and 1,500 breakfasts. That’s a lot of food, but twice a week the production kitchens at Lincoln Park and Central schools still churn out scratch cooking, which is shipped to the other schools in the district.
Duluth makes from-scratch dishes like chicken dumpling soup, chili, spaghetti, sloppy Joes and rotini hotdish. The commodity hotdogs and burgers are often made of turkey, the ubiquitous chicken nugget is baked and the pizza crust is wheat. There is no frying at any of the four districts.
“I think we do a very nice job on what we offer,” said Pam Bowe, a registered dietitian and food service director for the Duluth district. “There is always room for improvement.”
Shawn Metzer is father to Chandler Metzer, a Lakewood student. While he appreciates the scratch-cooking the district does, he wants more fresh offerings for his kids.
“Processed food is not good,” he said. “You can keep on reheating the stuff with preservatives and you don’t know the difference.”
His family grows vegetables and eats lots of wild game, but with three kids to get ready for school, cold lunch isn’t always an option.
“If they can scratch-feed the whole time, it would be great,” he said.
Scratch-cooking every day would require more labor, equipment and training, Bowe said, and “labor is expensive.”
School districts’ typical reasons for serving processed foods, Adamick said, are not having enough time or money for food, labor and training. Money for labor and equipment are the problems districts face, Adamick, said, and not money for the food.
“There is tremendous financial waste in the current system, including the money spent to process otherwise free commodity food,” she said.
She explained it this way: Districts have the option to order commodities as “brown box” products. That’s whole-muscle raw meat for about $3 to $4 per box, the cost of shipping. The government tells the districts it can turn that raw meat into a variety of processed foods, for a price. Adamick was working with a district that had spent $215,000 from September to February turning raw chicken into chicken nuggets.
“If I give you a free chicken, and I tell you for $5 or $10 I’ll turn it into chicken nuggets … that’s why there is this constant cry for ‘We don’t have the money,’ ” she said. “The USDA is encouraging them to do that.”
Adamick said some districts need better kitchen equipment or more labor and training to cook raw food, but she’s never encountered a district where she wasn’t able to find a solution. That could be cooking on multiple shifts, consolidating food preparations to central kitchens — several area districts already do that — and finding money for equipment and training.
“If they are doing it two days a week there’s no way they can’t do it five days a week,” she said.
Congress asked to pay more
Bowe said that of the items not made from scratch in Duluth, she tries hard to pick the healthiest items kids will eat, often from Minnesota producers.
Increased government subsidies could pay for more-expensive products like fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, Bowe said. The district has spent $100,000 on both so far this year, but the cost of avoiding inferior produce is higher during winter months.
A reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act awaiting a Senate vote would inject $4.5 billion into the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs over the next 10 years, boosting lunch reimbursement rates that, aside from inflation, haven’t changed in decades. The Child Nutrition Act pays for school lunches and nutrition programs for lower-income students and is reauthorized every five years.
That means districts could serve more fresh food and perhaps cut down on the preservative-laden frozen meats and pizzas that end up in children’s stomachs.
Marion Nestle is an author and New York University Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health. She’s served as senior nutrition policy adviser for the Department of Health and Human Services and as a member of the Food and Drug Administration Food Advisory Committee.
She said the ideal school lunch should consist of real foods, not processed, and be reasonably balanced. Years of eating processed foods a few times a week accustoms kids to “kids’ food,” and teaches them “that it’s normal to eat like that every day,” she said.
Kids in the U.S. are not deprived of nutrients, she said, because processed foods are fortified.
“Nutrients aren’t the point,” she said. “Food is the point.”