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School lunches, pt 2: choices in the cafeteria

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When we hear about kids and obesity, a lot of people point the finger at schools. Most kids today eat about half their meals at school, and many cafeterias are filled with junk food. In the second half of our school lunch series, Julie Grant reports that some districts are trying to improve what they serve - but there are a lot of challenges.

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Julie Grant
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Transcript: Julie  Grant, December 11, 2009

(sound of a school cafeteria)

The food available in school in Shaker Heights, Ohio looked a lot different a few years ago. They used to sell lots of pop and French fries. Today, we’re standing at what’s called the Nutri-Bar. Students can buy salads, sandwiches, even sushi.

“Fresh, healthy and portable. That’s the motto of the Nutri-Bar. This has been a big hit with our students.”

Peggy Caldwell is spokesperson for the school district. She says a group of parents started worrying about national obesity and diabetes rates among children and pushed for the change.

“They want us to provide healthy choices. They want us to provide nutritious meals. They understand that students learn best if they are healthy and well fed.”

Parents worked with the district to improve the food available in the schools.

(school bell)

“And, here they come.”

It’s lunchtime. Students are packing into the cafeteria.

(sound of a blender)

A few girls order fruit smoothies at the snack bar.

(sound of students in line)

But the line is much longer for the hot meals. Cheeseburgers and pizza are always on the menu. Today’s special: chicken strips and mashed potatoes. That might sound like a lot of fat and salt, but Caldwell says it’s actually pretty healthy.

“The chicken strips are baked now, they’re not fried. The potatoes are baked or, if they’re mashed potatoes, they’re made with low fat milk. There’s less sodium. They may look the same, but they’re better for you than they used to be.”

Caldwell says they’re starting to make pizza with whole wheat crust and the pasta is all whole grain.

But serving healthier food has cost the district. They had to buy ovens so they could bake. They have to pay more for labor to chop vegetables and make smoothies. And the food, itself, costs more. Fruits and vegetables come at a higher price than those processed foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt.

Especially in schools. Schools can actually get 15% to 20% of their food for free through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Janey Thornton is undersecretary for food and nutrition at the USDA. She says when farmers have too much of, say, blueberries or green beans or ham, the USDA buys those commodities for schools.

“If we have an abundance of blueberries – in order to stabilize the market, to keep prices near where they should be, then those products are purchased by the federal government.”

Then the government offers those blueberries for free to schools. That sounds might sound like a win-win - helping farmers and schools. But lots of times those berries are processed into unhealthy things - like glazed blueberry snack pies - before they get to schools.

Peggy Caldwell says the government food presents a challenge. Schools can’t afford to turn down free food. But it’s often high in salt and fat, and at odds with her district’s efforts to provide healthy lunches.

“It’s not always consistent with the nutritional guidelines. It can be a challenge for a staff to use in a way and in quantities that really meet the health requirements we’re trying to meet for our students.”

Some critics have gone so far as to call the schools garbage disposals for un-sellable farm commodities. Janey Thornton with the USDA scoffs at that suggestion.

“I would love to have that garbage disposal in my home, in my freezer if that were the case.”

Thornton worked 25 years in school nutrition at a local district before coming to the USDA. She says the ground meat has gotten leaner, the canned fruit is now healthfully packed in a very light syrup.

(sound of a cafeteria)

For those that disagree, debating the federal government might seem like a huge undertaking. But there maybe even tougher tasks for schools encouraging healthful eating, like Shaker Heights.

Grant: “What are you having for lunch?”

Student: “Ice cream. Chocolate. Soft serve. It’s really good.”

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

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

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