Wednesday, October 12, 2011

25 Facts You Should Share For School Lunch Week

School lunch programs have gotten a pretty bad reputation over the past few years, as many lack essential nutrients and contain high fat content, empty calories and entirely too much sodium. While there is still a long way to go in making them truly healthy, considerable reform has already been implemented. School districts hope such measures will better serve the needs of K-12 students and the community at large.

As we mark National School Lunch Week this October, parents and kids should take time to step back and learn the facts about what’s going into their bodies. Though school lunches could definitely be even healthier and more nutritious, there are quite a few positives that you might not know. Here, we share some of the good and the bad to help you make educated and informed decisions.

Students who eat National School Lunch Program meals are more likely to sport a healthy weight.

While not every element of school lunches may be healthy, they’re not all bad. Studies have shown that students who eat school lunches may actually be less obese and are likely get more vegetables and fruits than their peers bring their lunches from home. They also reveal that what children eat at home often shapes their decisions about what foods to eat at school.

Vegetarian options are served in over 30% of American middle and high schools.

While progress still needs making when it comes to vegetarian-friendly school lunch options, more and more institutions embrace them. Not only does it help to accommodate those with different religious, political and personal beliefs, but it can also be healthier.

Eighty-five percent of high school lunch programs offer fresh fruit and vegetables daily.

As sad as it is that 15% of high schools in the country don’t provide fresh fruit and veggie options every day, it’s also a good sign that so many still boast them. With more healthy choices, students can help maintain an ideal weight and get the nutrients they need to grow.

Federal law prohibits the sale of soda in elementary school cafeterias during the lunch period, as it is considered of minimal nutritional value.

In 2006, the top soft-drink companies agreed to remove sweetened drinks from school cafeterias and vending machines. Students instead have the option to choose between bottled water, milk and 100% fruit juices in elementary schools, and the same selections plus sports drinks and diet soda in high schools. All serving sizes are limited to what’s acceptable for the represented grades — 8 oz in elementary school, 10 oz in middle school and 12 oz in high school. Many campuses went ahead and banned soft drinks altogether.

The National School Lunch Program feeds more than 31 million children every school day.

Of those 35 million children, 18 million qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and rely on school meals to get by. That’s a whole lot of kids, which is why it’s so important that meals meet healthy standards — especially for those who may not be getting adequate nutrition at home.

One child in every four is overweight or obese.

That’s 25% of American kids, most attaining this status by age three. One in three will develop diabetes in his or her lifetime. For African-American and Hispanic children, that number rises to one in two. While schools can’t force kids to eat healthy at home, they reinforce good eating habits and get them hooked on nutritious foods, playing a major role in reducing these scary stats.

School districts are reimbursed only $2.68 for every meal served to a qualified child.

This may seem like plenty, but after paying overhead costs, schools are left with only $1.00 to purchase food. As a result, many turn to cheap, processed items to feed children within their means. Budget cuts and states struggling with financial issues have made it even harder to provide healthy options at a low cost.

Cafeterias that don’t ban junk food outright may have a greater long-term impact.

Students are more likely to stick with eating healthy when it is a choice, not a decision imposed by the school administrators, studies have shown. Coercion could backfire and cause students to seek out unhealthy foods outside of school as compensation. A greater range of choices, coupled with education and controlled portion sizes, can actually be a much more effective method than a full junk food ban.

Some school cafeterias do not undergo regular health inspections.

While much has been done to change this recently, especially with so much national attention focused on the issue, there are still some schools not inspected regularly — or at all. USA Today released an article in 2009, which revealed that over 26,500 American schools weren’t subjected to the proper health and sanitation inspections. The USDA admits that these regulations are notoriously hard to enforce since there are so many institutions, requiring a great amount of time and resources that simply may not be available. In 2005, such a lax outlook led to 60 faculty and students at a North Dakota high school falling ill with a flu-like virus, spread by a food worker not wearing gloves.

While school cafeteria offerings may meet nutritional guidelines, many contain a large amount of preservatives and additives.

In 2010, The New York Daily News published a story that revealed that some pizzas served in school cafeterias contain over 25 different ingredients, many of them preservatives and additives. These are not only unhealthy, but may cause behavioral issues, as many have been linked to a spike in hyperactivity.

School lunches must meet USDA guidelines, with less than 10% of calories from saturated fat, and 20-35% of calories from total fat.

To fall within federal laws, school lunches cannot exceed these regulations. While they are not a guarantee, they do help eliminate the worst nutritional offenders from the menu.

The school lunch program was started in 1946.

Many don’t realize just how long the school lunch program has been around. The National School Lunch Act was passed by Harry Truman in 1946 and provides free or low-cost meals to low-income students. The program was created to prop up food prices by absorbing farm surpluses — a purpose it still serves today.

The annual mean wage of those serving school cafeteria food is $21,450.

That’s not much, and certainly not enough to support a family. In fact, in nearly every state this salary would put a family of four below the poverty line. Working in a cafeteria can also be immensely physically taxing, requiring hours standing, lifting, bending and working with potentially dangerous equipment. So if you haven’t thanked a cafeteria worker lately, make School Lunch Week the time to do so.

School lunches must provide a choice of two vegetables and two fruits daily.

Federal law mandates that elementary school cafeterias provide children with a choice between two veggies and two fruits each day. This allows kids to find an option they like more easily and ensures they get the necessary nutrition.

Deep-fried food limited to no more than two portions per week.

Some would argue that there shouldn’t be any fried foods at schools, and new regulations help phase them out. Currently, schools are limited to serving no more than two fried foods a week (often fries), and many cut them out altogether and opt for baked alternatives instead.

While there is still progress left to be made, big strides over the past few years still improve school lunch nutrition.

A 2010 report showed that 95% of school districts increase whole grains, 90.5% provide more fresh fruits and vegetables, 69% reduce sodium, 66% limit sugars and 51% increase vegetarian options. There may be a long way to go, but it’s important to remember that progress is still being made.

Schools are taking innovative approaches to unhealthy school lunch favorites.

Instead of outright banning pizza and fries, schools (and the companies supplying them) are changing these foods’ preparation. Pizzas are now being made with whole grain crusts and vegetable toppings, and french fries now come baked more often than fried. A viable compromise between the often picky palates of children and the need for schools to provide healthy foods.

Many foods served to children are commodities, and may not be high quality or nutritious.

The USDA purchases surplus foods, like meat and dairy, and provides them to institutions completely gratis, like we mentioned earlier. While budget-friendly, these may not always be the best choices for concocting healthy meals, as many prove high in saturated fat and cholesterol. In recent years, the USDA has been urged to purchase more plant-based commodities, but the system has undergone few changes to date.

School lunches offer more total food items, more fruits, vegetables and dairy products than their equivalents brought from home.

Think home-brought lunches are always healthier? While they certainly can be, it’s not always the case. Studies have found that school lunches, on average, provide students with three times as many dairy products, two times as much fruit and seven times as many vegetables as their homemade counterparts.

National School Lunch Program participants are more likely to consume a greater variety of foods than students who bring their lunch from home.

That’s not to say that sack lunches can’t be healthy, but many students aren’t choosing the best foods, studies show. Kids who get lunch at school often eat more vegetables, milk, milk products and meat than peers packing theirs, resulting in a better balanced diet.

Many schools do not offer free water with lunch.

While students can purchase bottled water out of a vending machine, most schools do not offer actually offer it come lunchtime. This has become a major issue in recent years, and many cafeterias have been prompted to install water fountains or filtered jugs meeting thirsty demands. While students have access to other beverages, water is an essential part of a healthy diet, and can even affect learning and mental performance.

The Child Nutrition Act now requires every school receiving federal funds for food service programs to adopt a wellness policy.

Each school’s wellness policy must include: goals for nutrition, education and physical activity; nutrition guidelines for all foods available on campus; a plan for measuring the effectiveness of all wellness policies; and plans to involve parents, students, the public and the school faculty in the development of new wellness policies.

Currently, foods sold in school vending machines, snack bars and a la carte lines are not required to meet federal nutrition standards.

Referred to as "competitive foods", these products don’t always fall under federal regulations for healthy noshes. That could soon change. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requires the federal government to create standards for these, ultimately improving the health of all food options available throughout the day.

The National School Lunch Program operates in nearly 95% of America’s schools.

Additionally, about 85% of schools participate in the National School Breakfast Program. This adds up to 31 million children served daily, and 5 billion lunches a year.

School meals are served in age-appropriate portion sizes.

In every school lunch, portion sizes are established by age and grade groups. In many cafeterias, large a la carte items have been replaced with more practical and health-conscious sizes as well

Contacts and sources:
Story by Emma Taylor

No comments:

Post a Comment