August 25 2011

School Lunches: Not So Bad After All?

Julie Gunlock

We hear a lot of negative stories about school meals and the need to improve their nutritional content. The First Lady championed the Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 — a monstrosity of a bill that authorize $4.5 billion to improve school meals within ten years. The bill was signed by the president in December 2010. In January 2011, the USDA released a proposed rule that would set new nutritional standards for all food offered in schools. The USDA received over 130,000 comments, which were distilled into a 150-page document, now under review. The final rule is due before the end of the year.

While that rather tiresome bureaucratic process has lumbered on, a tiny bit of evidence has emerged showing all of that congressional and White House meddling might not have been necessary.

In a move that leaves one wondering why all these folks in Washington didn’t do a little survey of their own before authorizing billions of dollars to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) just released a survey of 1,294 school foodservice directors showing that school cafeterias nationwide are serving some pretty darn healthy meals. 

Here are a few cheerful highlights from the SNA’s press release:

• Nationwide, nearly every school district offers fresh fruits and vegetables (98%)

• Whole grain foods have become readily accessible (97%)

• 89% of school districts offer salad bars or pre-packaged salads

• About two-thirds provide vegetarian meals (63%)

• Virtually all districts offer fat-free or 1% milk (98%)

School nutrition programs are also working to bring more locally sourced foods into schools, with nearly half (48%) of respondents offering locally sourced fruits and vegetables (up from 37% in 2009). School districts are working to help connect and educate students on the foods grown in their region, with 32% involved in farm to school initiatives and another 41% interested in or planning to implement these initiatives. Results also reveal the trend toward school gardens, with 21% of districts confirming to have a school garden and another 37% interested in or planning to implement these programs. . . .

The report also found that at least 94% of districts prepare some of their entrees or sides from scratch. Of those that prepare items from scratch, more than 64% prepare at least a quarter of their entrees from scratch and more than 71% prepare at least a quarter of their side dishes from scratch – both results indicating an increase from 2009.

This survey shows that foodservice directors are trying hard to improve the nutrition content of the meals served to kids in schools. It didn’t require federal action — rather, just a little public outcry and media attention on the matter. 

Now, these same directors might be forced throw out the improvements they’ve made if they are inconsistent with the about-to-be-released federal regulations. That’s too bad. We should leave it to the individual school districts and these foodservice directors to make the improvements. After all, they have the best sense of the school children’s regional food preferences and traditions. 

But of course, there’s a way to avoid all these issues: Pack your kid a lunch. After all, parents have the best sense of their child’s preferences and food traditions. Let the bureaucrats blather on about whole wheat and leafy greens. I’ll stick to a little brown sack and a good ‘ole PB&J for my kids.

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