About 7 or 8 years ago, when I was still teaching in Oakland, California, the National Academy of Sciences did some outreach to school lunch providers to assess the extent to which students' nutritional needs were being met, and how. The questionnaire was intended to be returned to the Academy by administrators or district-level personnel in departments that oversee school lunch programs (because goodness knows, no one else could possibly ever have an informed opinion). I, who have an opinion on pretty much everything, chose to respond.
Seven years later, I'm not sure too much has changed.
Here is the text of my response from 2006, only very slightly redacted:
Please note: I am not affiliated with the School Lunch Program in Oakland, CA. However, I have been a teacher for going on 15 years, and am – for whatever reason – a big fan of cafeteria-style food. I eat school lunches often, and as I have worked in the Bay Area, in five different counties and at several different schools (between subbing, part-time and full-time work), I feel I can comment eloquently on what I have found.
I am also a highly educated and very health-conscious person, besides being a former science teacher, and am able to participate in the scientific aspects of the dialogue, and comfortable with the jargon, the buzzwords and the concepts of nutrition, biology and food preparation. Lastly, I worked, before teaching, in a large institutional kitchen for 4 years – a kitchen that served more people per day than any school cafeteria I have ever seen, so I do have some idea of that to which I refer.
Question: Explain the process used for developing nutrition standards for foods in schools in your area. At what level (such as state, district or individual school) were the standards developed and adopted?
Standards are already readily available – the American Association of Pediatrics among other Boards and Entities provides guidelines for consumption for growing kids. “Trendy” extras, such as self-sustaining or organic or vegetarian may be superimposed upon a pre-existing comprehensive and general nutritional program as determined by an interpretation of nationally medically recommended nutritional guidelines.
As far as Oakland, CA goes, the district has drafted a wordy pretense to enhancing student nutrition (the link is long since dead) but in reality has done nothing of the sort. Student meals regularly consist of generic comfort foods (burgers, chicken sandwiches of the breaded patty variety, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, etc…) and the nutritional supplementation to this mass of fat-sodium-cholesterol-rich dreck is achieved vis-à-vis the inclusion of a plastic tray of “fruits and vegetables,” or more accurately, a single lettuce leaf and/or some dried and often shriveled baby carrots, and a single piece of fruit – an orange, apple or kiwi. The beverage of choice is ever milk, 2% or chocolate. While strictly speaking, this does touch on a great deal of nutritional areas, it does so in the most brutish of ways, with unpleasant, unattractive, often poorly prepared, room temperature, unwholesome imitations of barely recognizable entrees.
It is my understanding that the centralized kitchens that provide school lunches are privatized, and that it is a contract business. Ergo, one must assume that this is the most economical alternative. If this were the case, however, one must assume that at some point, other providers would have attempted to break into the business, and win a lucrative contract (Oakland is a huge district with tens of thousands of students) by offering a better product. That this has not happened is indicative of one of three things:
- Inertia: It is too hard to change the way it has “always been.” This is unacceptable where our children’s livelihoods are at stake.
- Contract: There is a Union, contractual or other legal reason barring the district from making the switch. To which I can only say that some clever lawyer had better find a way to invoke the health of our children over the sanctity of a legal contract that is being fulfilled, if at all, only to the letter, and certainly NOT to the spirit of providing quality lunches.
- Marketspace: Maybe there is no such opportunity, either because no commercial kitchen wants to risk the expense of offering anything other than those old familiar comfort foods, or because schools are afraid to deprive their children of the diabetes-II-causing swill they are so accustomed to peddling. Therefore there is no meaningful competition among school-food providers. To which I say, let the government impose requirements and restrictions upon school food providers, such that commercial kitchens who wish to provide healthier alternatives are not shut out of the marketplace, and the kind of quality fare that they offer becomes the standard, and not the exception.
Question: What are your recommendations on whether there should be different nutrition standards for different grade levels?
a. If you recommend different nutrition standards by grade level, why and what differences should there be?I recommend only that standards be endorsed by medical science and the same groups that issue their recommendations to doctors and pediatricians, as indicated in my earlier answer.
b. If you recommend the same nutrition standards for all grade levels (pre-kindergarten through 12th grade), what factors led to this recommendation?
It is understood that the factory-produced/mass-produced processed foods are, pound-for-pound, cheaper than their whole-food or healthier alternatives. For example, breaded chicken patties or nuggets are much cheaper by the pound than boneless, skinless chicken breast filets. However, surprisingly, in sufficient bulk (we are talking about city-sized school districts here) the marginal difference is trivial, and the rewards are innumerable:
- a greater sense of pride (or at least the disappearance of that old school-lunch stereotype) in the quality of the lunches;
- an enhancement of the school’s/district’s image and public face (“we make that little extra effort to support our kids and give them something other than the default”);
- the actual possibility that students might develop lifelong eating habits that are halfway reasonable;
- a chance to incorporate healthful changes and examples into science and health class curricula;
- great P.R. for the healthy-eating movement.
Even simple cosmetic changes – baked for fried, vegetarian refried beans instead of full-fat lard-containing ones, fat-free cheese singles for standard American cheese, 1% milk for 2%, reduced fat/high fiber tortillas for traditional flour tortillas, Lite mayo for real mayo, wheat bun/bread for white – contribute in small but meaningful ways that have a cumulative and cascading effect.
Cafeteria food’s biggest competitors are the ready-made food markets – be they fast food, convenience store fare, or (as in the case of my school) a “lunch truck” (or “roach coach”). These foods are invariably fried, and loaded with grease, fat, and cholesterol. A sample delicacy that I remember from my infrequent trips to the Coach to get a rice pudding is this: a fried breaded chicken patty sandwich, with cheese, turkey, bacon or ham, and fried egg. And the bread is grilled in butter on the griddle. If I didn’t already have a cholesterol score that greatly exceeds my IQ (and "between you and me," to quote Albus Dumbledore, "that's saying something") I would give in to the sinful pleasure.
Our campus is sixth through twelfth grade. Whether or not there is a meaningful distinction between the nutritional needs of a 12-year old and those of a 17-year-old is more than I know. But I do know that the needs of neither appear to be being met.
Question: What are your recommendations regarding the implementation of nutrition standards?
I said “appear to be,” in my answer to the previous question because in fact the consumers of school lunches do not have access to the kind of basic and necessary (and otherwise prescribed by law) information that a consumer should.
In the rest of the food-eating nation, consumers are provided a list of ingredients, and nutritional information. The Federal Government requires this of all packaged foods sold in stores, and many stores are good enough to provide that information for fresh foods as well. Most major chains of restaurants, however, are not required to provide fully elaborated nutritional guides to their menus on-site [Note: This is changing; though not necessarily required to, many are electing to]. Some (I’m thinking of Fresh Choice, western US salad/buffet restaurant) are entire booklets, listing ingredients, portion sizes, and all the nutritional details you would expect to find on the side of a cereal box, for example. Most of those that do not (Starbucks, for example) publish this information on their website. In this fashion, consumers can educate themselves, and make food choices appropriately, although in many cases, they have to do their research in advance.
However, parents can NOT do this. At all. Parents know only the names of the foods their children eat, which may or may not actually hold any indication of what is IN them:
- Parents of vegetarian, vegan, Jewish, Muslim, diabetic, or food-allergic students have no way of knowing of their children might encounter food (in the form of an ingredient whose existence is unannounced) that is anathema to them. Already McDonald’s has endured lawsuits brought by vegetarians upon the discovery that its “vegetarian” French Fries were in fact treated with beef tallow;
- Many parents, especially in poorer and urban areas, are uneducated, and might not know, for example, that gelatine is an animal product, or that certain products are made with dairy (lots of things!), egg (many pastas), fish products (Caesar dressing, A-1 sauce) or lard (such as flour tortillas, and many commercially available brands of refried beans). Parents may assume that something like “chicken nuggets” or a “Chicken patty” is healthy, because it’s “Chicken,” not realizing that a 4-ounce chicken filet has about 120 calories and 1 gram of fat, whereas a breaded patty may contain 200-300 calories, and 9-15 grams of fat, not to mention several hundred mg of added sodium vis-à-vis the breading. The nuggets, courtesy of their increased surface area (= more absorption of grease, more breading, more carbs, more sodium, and easy consumption as they are cute little finger foods, thus increasing their appeal even more…) are worse yet;
- Parents may well wish their child to live a more natural lifestyle, and without the ability to educate them on the nature of what they’re eating/avoiding, they miss out on the chance to raise their children in the fashion in which they desire;
- The spirit of the law(s) that require full nutritional disclosure MUST apply to the foods that children eat for several reasons:
- People who read nutritional label of packages in stores and at restaurants are (in theory) educated adult consumers, or at least they have reached their majority and are in the position of making responsible decisions. If an adult should misread, or choose not to read, a nutritional label, there really is no one to blame but the adult. Adults are responsible for their own bodies and their own health.
- Children, however, are not. Adults are, and so the same information and courtesy is expected if not required by adults who wish to be able to make these choices for their children.
- It is exactly the poor and urban populations that suffer this indignity the most. The Bay Area has many schools with overwhelming populations of students on Free or Reduced Price Lunches. These are the students of families for whom a daily lunch is a financial inconvenience. Then may not have the available alternatives of buying the most quality ingredients, or spending a few dollars more on more healthful foods. [...] [Students] are consigned by default to the foods with which we provide them, and we do a disservice to, and disrespect, this “captive audience” of eaters by providing for them so poorly, and then not even opening up to the parents about what it is that we’re actually providing them.
Schools and school districts need to impose full ingredient and nutritional disclosure of all foods. This is not as much work is it might seem. An independent lab can process the foods and generate the data. Go to any Sweet Tomatoes (or SouPlantation) salad bar/buffet restaurant, and pick up a complimentary copy of their nutritional details. They hired an independent biochemist/nutritionist whose credentials are spelled out in all their glory, and her lab performed the analyses and published the results. And even though schools change their menus from day to day, the fact is that most commercial/school kitchens work from a list of about 20-40 different offerings that they rotate in and out to avoid repetition. The burger that is served on September 17th is the same materially as the one students are served on October 20th; it only needs to be nutritionally analyzed once.
This seems only a small – but so necessary – step to meet propriety, and show parents that schools and their affiliated agencies are not trying to pull one over on them. I say this because ignorance is the surest way to keep parents from rising up… if parents are denied the information that they have a right to possess, they are made intentionally of ignorant of that which they might legitimately have a grievance against! In this fashion, the school districts and their kitchens protect themselves from controversy by just not letting anybody know any details at all. Is that the behavior of an entity with nothing to hide? [...]
----------------------So have things changed for the better? In districts cutting teachers, cutting programs, cutting athletics -- even in some cases reducing standardized testing because of the costs involved -- one has to believe that school lunches are an easy target. The news s full of lots of schools talking about improving school lunches (whatever that means) and I've even read about some pilot programs to do so, but nothing really in a school district of any significant size (NYC, Miami-Dade) or even moderate size (Oakland, San Jose City or East Side Union, Syracuse City...). Of course, the larger the city, the greater the need of the students, it seems, and therefore the greater the need for these lunches to be of quality (again, whatever that means).
So what's the endgame? What is the responsibility of schools with regard to lunches? Do they need to meet the same guidelines as other food purveyors? Do they need to cater to specific student needs, or can thy just provide something, anything? Is a healthy lunch a civil right? Or is the opposite true -- is the provision of free lunches on the taxpayer dime a boondoggle that simply needs to cease, and make this whole debate moot? Do you agree with the words of the 2006-me? Or was I off-base? Has anything changed (for the better, for the worse)?
I dunno, I'm just A.S.K.ing...