December 26, 2010

Five myths about school food

Make lunch free for all, and count on more kids rejecting chips and cookies in favor of -- yes -- fruits and vegetables.

By JANET POPPENDIECK Special to The Washington Post

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Janet Poppendieck, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, is the author of "Free for All: Fixing School Food in America."

Other studies have found that kids in the school lunch program drink more milk and eat fewer snack foods, sweets and sweetened beverages than others.

While certainly some households send carefully crafted healthy lunches, far too many children arrive at school with a brown bag containing a sweet drink and a bag of chips.

3. Kids won't eat vegetables.

This belief is at the heart of many school menus -- kids won't eat anything green, so we shouldn't waste time and money trying. A number of schools are systematically disproving this myth.

In Compton, Calif., Tracie Thomas introduced salad bars, which are now one of the most popular options for students. In New Orleans, chef April Neujean conducts tastings with her kindergartners -- one for each letter of the alphabet -- as they learn their ABCs (Apples, Bananas, Carrots, Daikon radishes).

I have seen students enthusiastically eating all sorts of healthy options, especially where they have first encountered the foods in a school garden or classroom cooking demonstration, helped to plant or harvest the vegetables or even met the farmer growing their greens.

Kids will eat vegetables, even in the cafeteria, though they are far less likely to do this if they can purchase salty snacks and sweets from a display near the cash register, a vending machine or a snack bar.

For example, a study in Texas found that students with access to a la carte foods ate only three-quarters as many fruits and vegetables as did those without such easy access to other snacks. A survey in Kentucky found that students who bought extra snacks to go with their lunch had greater fruit "plate waste" -- or uneaten food -- than did students who passed up such purchases.

4. Schools need to sell junk food to break even.

Most cafeterias have pizza, chips, french fries and cookies for sale alongside healthy meals that are federally reimbursable. The food service directors I have interviewed uniformly believed that they must sell such items in order to break even and that the a la carte sales were subsidizing the official, federally regulated school lunch. A new cost study, however, shows this to be yet another school food myth.

Junk food sales don't even pay for themselves: On average, they bring in just 71 percent of the costs associated with offering them. Thus, school districts wind up diverting to a la carte sales substantial portions of the federal cash reimbursements intended to subsidize healthy meals.

The new legislation will help the cafeterias doing battle with vending machines. It gives the secretary of agriculture the authority to regulate all foods for sale in schools participating in the school lunch program.

5. Higher federal nutrition standards will ensure healthy eating.

Take a look at what happened last time Congress mandated higher nutrition standards for school food.

In the mid-1990s, Congress decided that school meals should comply with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which specified that no more than 30 percent of calories should come from fat.

In an effort to comply, many schools eliminated whole milk, but then found their meals falling below the calorie minimums set by the USDA. They couldn't afford to add another fruit or vegetable, so many schools began offering sweetened, flavored milk, replacing the now-forbidden calories from fat with calories from high-fructose corn syrup.

The new standards, developed by the Institute of Medicine, call for a dramatic reduction in sodium to be phased in. This might work well if sodium were simultaneously reduced in the foods sold at corner stores and fast-food restaurants, but without such changes everywhere, it could actually lead to a drop in participation as school meals become more healthy.

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