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School lunches and super donuts

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We hear a lot about American kids and obesity. Many children eat half their meals at school - and some parents question whether those meals are teaching kids healthy eating habits. In the first part of a series on school lunch programs, Julie Grant reports on the push for change in the cafeteria.

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Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

Transcript: Julie  Graham, December 10, 2009

We hear a lot about American kids and obesity. Many children eat half their meals at school – and some parents question whether those meals are teaching kids healthy eating habits. In the first part of our series on school lunch programs, Julie Grant reports on the push for change in the cafeteria:

Gwen Rosenburg was appalled when she saw the menu at her son’s elementary school. It was called a heart-healthy menu.

“So, I saw chicken patties and corn dogs and chicken nuggets, hot dogs and hamburgers. And super-donuts for breakfast and s’mores flavored Pop Tarts for breakfast. And then I got really angry – because I don’t like to be called stupid.”

Super-Donuts. That sounded like junk food – not heart healthy food. So Rosenburg called the school district to complain.

But her district, like many, hires an outside company to take care of food service. So Rosenburg started writing to the company, Aramark, to find out the nutritional content of the foods it was serving. She didn’t get many answers.

Rosenburg didn’t want her kids to eat the school food. Most people told her to stop complaining and just pack lunch.

But that only helped her to realize why this bothered her so much. Lots of families don’t have enough money to pack lunch – so their kids have no choice but to eat the subsidized school meals.

“It bothered me that my tax dollars were paying for food that I wouldn’t serve my kids. Once I made that realization it seemed suddenly unethical for me to do nothing and say, ‘thank God I’m not poor.’”

Rosenburg went on a campaign and contacted everyone she could think of about it. She also started her own blog to document her attempts to improve school meals in her district.

Patrick McMullen is in charge of food service in Rosenburg’s district. He works for the company, Aramark. McMullen says things are a lot better now than they were ten years ago. Back then, the high school had soda on tap, free with lunches.

Today, you can’t even buy carbonated beverages in the schools here. McMullen says most people agree that was a healthy change.

But it’s not usually that clear: he says every family has its own idea of what is good food.

“Somebody likes chicken nuggets, somebody doesn’t. A lot of people see chicken nuggets as an unhealthy item. Some people think it’s perfectly fine because it’s a lean meat.”

McMullen says it’s his job to make sure the school meals stay within the district’s budget, while meeting USDA nutritional guidelines. And that kids buy and eat them. That’s why things like that Super-Donut exist.

“A Super-Donut is a fortified donut that’s made with juice and it’s infused with nutrients.”

McMullen says some parents see Super-Donuts as a healthy item. But lots of parents around the country have complained about the Super-Donut.

Janey Thornton is Undersecretary for Food and Nutrition at the US Department of Agriculture. The USDA is in charge of the national school lunch program.

Thornton says a food like the Super-donut is handy. Kids like it and they can eat it at their desks. She says parents wouldn’t complain if it was shaped like a piece of breakfast bread.

“Because it’s round with a hole in it, and we assume that it has donut-like qualities then, it sometimes gets a bad rap.”

But some parents think it’s giving kids a false impression of what’s healthy. Gwen Rosenburg says the Super-Donut is a prime example of how school meals are setting up kids for a lifetime of bad eating habits.

“Alright, I’m not supposed to eat a donut for breakfast. Sometimes I do, right. But I don’t believe that it is healthy. I know that it is not a healthy food option. But when you present it to children and say this is what the government, taxpayers, this is what your community has purchased for you to eat and you get it for free. It’s a donut. What exactly are you teaching them to do for the rest of their lives?”

Rosenburg says there are so many efforts to teach kids healthy habits, but those messages are easily undermined in the cafeteria.

There are districts around the country that have been improving school meals – offering salad bars and whole grain breads. Rosenburg says all her efforts have made some difference. Her district has added foods she thinks are healthier to the menu, and her son even buys his lunch sometimes.

“All I really wanted all along was something that I could say ‘I would let my kid eat that.’ And if I would let my kid eat that, then I would gladly whatever tax dollars to give it for free to the kid whose family can’t afford it. But if they’re going to serve food that I won’t let my child eat, I do not want them to serve that to impoverished children. It’s morally wrong. And it reeked to me like a form a classism.”

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Copyright © 2009. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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