Slimming Down the Lunch Line
As a parent, you may just take the nutritional value of your child's school lunch offerings as a given. After all, public schools and private schools that receive any form of federal funding must be providing meals that are nutritionally balanced and in line with the USDA food pyramid, right?
Well, not exactly. While the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) does regulate the school lunch program, there are no guarantees that today's cafeteria special will meet recommended daily allowances of nutrients and fall within acceptable caloric and fat standards. Menu planning standards required by the FNS do suggest nutritional guidelines and recommended daily allowances (RDAs), but they fail to make schools financially or legally accountable for meeting anything but the loosest requirements.
The USDA is also charged with ensuring the financial well-being of American farmers, which further complicates the school nutrition picture. The majority of federally subsidized surplus commodities — those foods like cheese and beef that the government has promised to purchase from farmers to keep market prices where they should be — are donated to the school lunch program. Some critics have charged that this arrangement leads to an excess of fat and calories on the school lunch menu.
In addition to the federal school lunch program, the FNS also administers a school breakfast program and an after-school snack program. Some studies have shown a link between weight problems and skipping breakfast. Research published in 2003 in the
Food-Based Versus Nutrient-Standard Menu Planning
Under the USDA's School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children, school lunch programs are allowed to operate under one of two menu planning strategies: food-based menu planning or nutrient-standard menu planning. The former is more widely used and has been in place since the school lunch program was created in 1946. The latter is newer. It uses computer software to analyze the specific nutrient content of foods offered and ensure that when averaged over a school week, the meals offered on the lunch menu meet one-third of the RDA for specific nutrients and calories based on age and/or grade.
With food-based menu planning, certain food types (such as meats or grains and breads) have to be served up in specific quantities at a meal. Those food types and quantities follow the USDA food pyramid. The main shortcoming of this type of planning is that it does not offer any inherent safeguards to ensure that unhealthy (like saturated fat) and healthy (such as calcium) nutrients are within recommended limits. In other words, a food-based menu could follow the pyramid to the letter and be fat-heavy and nutrient-poor, or exceed recommended calorie allowances for age.
The USDA does suggest that meal planners using the food-based method keep calories to one-third of the daily RDA for each age group served, limit total fat to 30 percent of calories and saturated fat to 10 percent, and try to meet RDA guidelines for other key nutrients. However, there are no requirements to use nutritional analysis to achieve this and no penalties for not meeting these requirements. Furthermore, these suggested nutritional guidelines are based not on each specific meal, but rather on a week's worth of averaged menus.
While national monitoring of school lunch menu-planning is not in place, the FNS does require that state agencies administer and periodically review the school lunch program. This task is usually assigned to the state department of education, although it may occasionally be handled by the state's department of health and human services or agriculture. For more information on what government entity administers your school lunch program, see the FNS directory on the Web at
For these reasons, it's important to ask your school's food service director what menu-planning system the school uses. Push for the school to do actual nutritional analysis of menus whenever possible. If the information is available, there's no reason that nutrient values can't be printed on the monthly school menus that are sent home with your child.
Providing Nutritional Analysis
The USDA requires that all nutritional analysis of foods for school lunch programs be done using approved software that contains the USDA child nutrition database, or CN. The CN database contains nutritional values for common school lunch and breakfast items and for commodities schools frequently receive.
If your child's school performs nutritional analysis of menus, the USDA requires it to assess the amount of fat (total and saturated), calories, calcium, iron, protein, vitamin A, and vitamin C. The standard amounts of each of these nutrients, excluding fat, vary by either age group or grade (depending on the type of calculation the school is using). Total fat should calculate to no more than 30 percent of calories, and of that 30 percent, no more than 10 percent of calories should be from saturated fat. Unfortunately, there are no limits or standards on cholesterol and sodium other than a nonspecific mandate to try and reduce them while increasing fiber content.
Fast Food Versus Whole Food Choices
Many schools are turning to for-profit à la carte items from fast-food franchises and other vendors to supplement their budgets. Contracts for brand-name pizzas, burgers, and fries — items in high demand for which kids with disposable income are willing to pay a premium — bring in big bucks for school programs. Federal school-lunch nutrition guidelines, however imperfect they are, don't even apply to these foods because they aren't considered reimbursable (that is, part of the free or reduced-cost FNS school lunch program).
What's a parent to do? As an initial step, you can send a healthy and appealing lunch to school with your child so he isn't tempted to spend his money on cafeteria fast food. Then, you can talk with school officials about your concerns with the high-fat fare. Ask if the vendor might be able to offer some more balanced choices with his à la carte offerings. If you can't get any satisfaction, take your argument higher — to your state senators and representatives. Many lawmakers are starting to take legislative action on limiting access to unhealthy food in school.