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Starting Good Eating Habits in the Lunchroom


High-fat school lunches that mimic fast-food offerings may be contributing to obesity and other health problems in children, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The U.S. government needs to make it easier and less expensive for schools to buy fruits and vegetables through the federal commodities program, so schools can offer students entrees that are more healthful. Included: Resources for finding lower-fat and vegetarian meals for kids.

Jennifer Keller
As far as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) is concerned, the typical school lunch is slowly and steadily feeding the growing problem of children with adult diseases such as obesity, type two diabetes, and high cholesterol. Since 1946, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made commodities (surplus food) such as meat, cheese, and butter available to public schools at little or no cost. The trouble is, say PCRM staff members, the USDA should be supplying schools with more fruits and vegetables, not high-fat foods that make children's waistlines bulge.

Since March is National Nutrition Month, Education World recently chatted with PCRM dietician Jennifer L. Keller about the group's campaign, its recommendations regarding changes to the school lunch law, and its commitment to healthier school lunches.

Education World: Why has the PCRM recently stepped-up its efforts to improve school lunches?

Jennifer L. Keller: PCRM promotes preventive medicine, especially good nutrition, and has recognized over the years the unhealthful fare served to kids in schools. The dramatic rise in childhood obesity as well as an increase in diet-related health problems such as high cholesterol levels and adult-onset diabetes in kids prompted PCRM to dedicate itself to getting more healthful foods in schools. Eating more healthful meals can help prevent some of those chronic problems from appearing in our nation's youth.

Parents and teachers concerned about health and nutrition also have contacted PCRM, explaining how hard it is to get a nutritious meal (especially a healthful meatless meal) for kids in school. This past fall PCRM launched the Healthy School Lunch Campaign in preparation for the upcoming reauthorization of the federal School Lunch Program. The campaign's key message is simple: Foods served as part of the school lunch program should promote the health of all children.

EW: What is the biggest obstacle to changing school lunch menus?

Keller: t for school districts to serve truly healthful food at a reasonable cost. The commodity system was designed with the dual purpose of providing food at minimal or no cost to public schools while providing a guaranteed market for the agricultural industry. Unfortunately, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is supporting the farmers who produce fruits, vegetables, and grains, it also is responsible for protecting the meat and dairy farmers. Therefore, school children are left with all of the surplus high-fat meats, whole milk, cheeses, and butter that consumers are not purchasing.

EW: How much more expensive, if at all, would it be for schools to serve more fruits and vegetables? How could they cover those additional costs?

Keller: If more fresh fruits and vegetables, and healthful vegan (non-meat and non-dairy) menu items, such as veggie burgers, were available as part of the federal commodities program, then there would be no added cost to schools. Right now, the commodity foods' list has mainly high-fat meat and dairy products.

EW: School personnel and food suppliers may argue that schools serve what they do because the high-fat, fast-food-type meals are what kids like and what sells. What role can schools play in reshaping kids' eating habits, such as getting them to choose carrots over French fries?

Keller: It's important for schools to teach kids about healthful nutrition and expose them to healthful foods. Children will eat vegetables and vegetarian entrees if the foods are cooked properly. Kids love carrots and low-fat dip or hummus, collard greens, baked sweet potato wedges, bean and rice burritos, veggie burgers, soy hot dogs, and spaghetti with roasted vegetables and marinara sauce. It's especially important to introduce these foods to kids while they're young, since that is when eating habits are developed. Adults who eat tons of vegetables and healthful vegetarian entrees were introduced to those foods as children.

Healthful School Lunches

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine offers some useful advice and recipes for healthful school recipes on its Web site. See PCRM's School Lunch Menu Makeover and Gold Plan Lunch Recipes.

School lunches in some districts are changing for the better. The articles below offer some information about more healthful school lunches:
Innovative School Lunch Programs Gaining Success
EW: What are you doing to spread the message about the need for more healthful lunches out to schools and districts?

Keller: Every summer, PCRM publishes a School Lunch Report Card grading the nutritional quality of lunches served in the largest school districts in America. This has led to questions and concerns [about school lunch menus], and healthful changes within districts. Healthy School Lunches also has a number of resources for parents, teachers, and food service directors.

We also have written letters to the USDA and submitted written and oral testimony [to the agency] regarding changes in the school lunch program necessary to teach children long-term healthful eating habits. In addition, we filed a petition for rulemaking with the USDA to mandate a calcium-rich, non-dairy beverage (fortified soymilk, for example) in the reimbursable school lunch meal.

We have faxed letters discussing PCRM's nutrition recommendations to all legislators on the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee who will vote on the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Programs this year. We have met with a number of the nutrition staffers for these senators already to outline our recommendations.

EW: How have members of Congress responded to your proposals?

Keller: All of the legislators with whom we have met have been receptive, and agree with our concerns about the high-fat meat and cheese served to kids in school and the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables.

This e-interview with Jennifer Keller is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.