Do School Lunches Serve Our Students?

By Amy Landsman

It’s lunchtime at Baltimore County’s Elmwood Elementary School in Fullerton, and off their foam lunch trays, the kids are eating what can only be described as typical school lunch fare: pizza, chicken nuggets, barbeque chicken sandwiches.
But wait!
There are also bananas on many of these trays. And apples. Some kids even have broccoli.
To the casual observer, school lunches in the Baltimore area may not seem very different from what they were five or 10 years ago, with their heavy rotation of pizza, nuggets, hamburgers, sloppy Joes, and french fries.
But take a closer look and you’ll see that school lunches, long a nutritional punch line, are starting to change with the times.
These days, there’s a good chance the pizza crust is made of whole wheat and the nuggets and fries are baked, not fried.
It’s a tricky balancing act, with schools trying to provide tens of thousands of low-cost lunches that meet federal nutrition guidelines and that the kids will eat, while also pleasing parents who are concerned about healthy meals.
In Cecil County, as in other Maryland public school districts, students are offered a five-component meal at lunchtime, consisting of 2 ounces of meat or a meat alternative, 3/4 cup fruit and/or vegetable (which is considered two components), bread or a grain (eight servings per week for elementary students, 10 for secondary students), and 1/2 pint of milk. Kids must take at least three of the five components for the meal to meet federal standards.
“The trick is to encourage them to choose healthy components, not just the entrée and a milk, but also fruits and vegetables,” says Kathy Thomas, food and nutrition supervisor for Cecil County Public Schools, who estimates that her school system prepares about 8,000 meals every day. “And, we’re seeing that trend more and more—kids picking fruits and vegetables.”
School systems often experiment with different products to see how the kids react.
Eulalia Muschik, supervisor of food services for Carroll County Public Schools, says that last year her school system tried a traditional whole-wheat pizza crust. The kids didn’t like it, so this year, they switched to white whole wheat, which has been much more successful.

Making It Home-Grown
In another positive nutritional move, locally grown produce is slowly but surely finding its way onto those foam trays, thanks to recent legislation.
The Jane Lawton Farm to School Program, created during the 2008 session of the General Assembly, encourages school systems to purchase food from local farms as a way to serve healthier meals in school cafeterias. It is also designed to provide health and nutrition education opportunities for students, in particular teaching them where their food comes from, how it is produced, and the benefits of a healthy diet.
As part of the Farm to School Program, public schools throughout the state devote a week in September, called the Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week, to highlight and sample the food grown and produced in the state. Some schools have since begun efforts to serve local foods throughout the school year.
In Cecil County, that means fresh apples.
Thomas says her county is offering more fresh fruit, and, “We’re supporting local businesses. We like to support our local farms,” she concludes.
As opposed to sticking strictly to the current trend popular among many school systems, which involves purchasing food that the schools simply need to heat and serve, Cecil County has also reintroduced foods made from scratch to its menus. Its homemade lunch items include cheesy rice bake and shepherd’s pie.
Many other Maryland public school systems are upgrading their lunch offerings as well.
Harford County Public Schools, which officials estimate served more than 5 million meals in the 2008-09 school year, allocated more than a half-million dollars for the purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables.
All Howard County public high schools have salad bars.
And Baltimore City Public Schools have “meatless Mondays,” with menu items that include bean and cheese burritos, mini ravioli, vegetarian chili, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The city school system also has its own farm, Fresh Start Farm at the Bragg Nature Center in Catonsville, where the students help plant and harvest vegetables.
Anne Arundel County Public Schools even has a school meals mascot, Snappy, a furry pink crab, who appears at fairs and school events to promote nutrition education.

Nutritional Reviews
Despite the positive changes in Maryland and other states, however, public schools in the United States still have a long way to go when it comes to school lunches, say experts.
This past fall, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an independent, nonprofit that provides evidence-based information and advice concerning health and science policy to policymakers and the public, issued a report on the national school meal program. It recommended steadily reducing the salt content of school meals, setting maximum calorie levels, and increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables.
Kelly O’Connor, a registered dietician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, recently looked over a few local school lunch menus and gave mixed reviews.
“Not bad is kind of my general reaction,” says O’Connor. “The thing that kind of jumped out at me was that a lot of the lunches were really heavy on starchy things.”

“There’s a lot of pizza,” she adds. “In all fairness, I love pizza, and whole-grain crust is good. Ideally, they could vary some of the toppings, which might expose the kids to something different.”
Many of the menus O’Connor reviewed featured chicken “disguised 20 different ways.” She suggests that offering grilled chicken wraps or sandwiches might get kids out of the nugget rut.
Seafood is a healthy choice, but O’Connor suspects that shrimp poppers, one item she saw on several menus, do not contain much shrimp.
“You’re better off with tuna or baked fish,” she says.
To help students make the best food choices at school, O’Connor encourages parents to review the monthly school menus with their children and guide them to select the healthier items. Menus are available online, at each school district’s website.

Ultimately, some people may wonder, does it really matter what the kids eat at school? After all, it’s only one meal a day. It’s quick, hot, and inexpensive. And it frees busy parents from the daily chore of packing a lunch.
O’Connor says yes, it does matter.
“It is the long-term effect that we are concerned about,” she says. “For example, a meal of pizza, hot dogs, or chicken nuggets that is consumed five days a week over the course of several years adds significant fat, calories, and sodium to a child’s diet.”
It’s hard to imagine Snappy the Crab being happy about that. BC

For More Information
If your child attends a public school in Baltimore City, Cecil County, or Howard County, go to www.schoolmenu.com for specific information on calories, fat, and other nutritional information for each menu item at the school. Currently, those three local school systems are the only ones listed with the service.
Also, read more about the Jane Lawton Farm to School Program at www.MarylandFarmtoSchool.org, or http://www.farmtoschool.org/MD/.

A Program for Healthy Eating:
To Like It, They First Must Try It
After each taking a careful, thoughtful taste, Elmwood Elementary School fourth-graders Parth Patel and Carl Levine both give thumbs up to the Fuji apples.
The figs? Not so much.

“Figs weren’t a big hit,” admits their teacher, Emily Groff.
Every Thursday, Groff’s fourth-grade class, along with the rest of the Elmwood community, samples a new fruit or vegetable at lunch. The goal is to get the kids to eat more fresh produce.
In fact, thanks to a federal grant through the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), Elmwood Elementary, and two other Baltimore County public elementary schools, are exposing their kids to a wide range of produce, some of it quite exotic.
Developed in response to the current rate of childhood obesity, the program is intended to help children develop tastes for a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, the hope being that this will instill in them more healthful eating habits.
Pleasant Plains Elementary School in Towson and Johnnycake Elementary School in Catonsville are also participating in FFVP.
“We have gotten all kinds of fun things,” says Cathy Haymaker, operations supervisor for Baltimore County’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services. “We’ve had jicama [a Mexican turnip]. We’ve done things like carrots, broccoli, kiwi, sugar snap peas. We’ve done red and green peppers and grapes. With this grant, we’ve been able to buy fresh blueberries and raspberries. The grant says it all needs to be fresh.”
The FFVP is separate from the lunch program. The fruits and vegetables served as part of FFVP are eaten in the classrooms as a mid-morning snack.

The kids learn a little about each week’s offering and earn a sticker for taking a bite.
“They’re very proud of themselves for trying [something new],” says Jeff Hagan, Elmwood Elementary’s assistant principal.
The fresh produce is also served to families at school events. In addition, the PTA at Elmwood Elementary, sponsors a contest among the students for which they each keep a record of the fruits and veggies they eat at home to win a prize.
Haymaker notes that, as little as five years ago, such a program would have been unheard of in schools. But, she says, just like when the kids taste test a new fruit, the schools, once they give the program a try, really like it.
“And it’s a wonderful program for kids,” she says. BC

Learn more about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program at www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/FFVP/FFVPdefault.htm.

© Baltimore’s Child Inc. December 2009

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