School Lunch: What's on the Menu?
School Lunch: What's Required?
By Catherine Kedjidjian
Many a joke has been made about "mystery meat," "slop," and other oddities of school lunches. But the reality is that many parents across the country place trust in their children's schools to provide lunches that are both nutritious and appealing each school day.
Through the federally funded National School Lunch Program (NSLP), almost 100,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential childcare institutions provide lunches to more than 27 million children each school day. Schools that participate in the program must provide free or low-cost meals to eligible children, and those meals must meet federal nutritional requirements. In return, the schools receive cash subsidies and donated commodity foods.
What's on the Menu?
Under the NSLP, school lunches must meet the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. No more than 30 percent of calories can be from fat, less than 10 percent from saturated fat. The lunches also must provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories.
Yet, while school lunches must meet federal nutrition requirements, each school decides what specific foods to serve and how to prepare them. And there are many unhealthy ways to meet the requirements–and even ways to get around those requirements. Thus, only two percent of school-aged children meet the Food Guide Pyramid recommendations for all five food groups. And with the obesity rates and the incidence of Type 2 diabetes skyrocketing among children and adolescents, the problem is truly life-threatening.
Schools can meet the nutritional requirements–which don't even mention fiber or important minerals–without offering a single fresh fruit or vegetable, or any kind of whole grain. In 2002, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine reviewed 15 days of elementary school lunch menus at 10 school districts across the country. Based on the philosophy that low-fat, plant-based meals help children maintain a healthy body weight and provide all essential vitamins and minerals, the PCRM judged the meals on how often they provided low-fat vegetables; whole or dried fruits; hot, meatless, dairy-free and egg-free entrees; and vegan options. Three of the 10 school districts--in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Houston--received failing grades. And not one district received an "A."