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Flunking lunch: under pressure for money, many schools are offering students unhealthy alternatives to the school-lunch program.

A school lunch often looks like an exercise in fat loading, with a supersize soft drink from a vending machine, followed by a candy bar from another machine. It is more in keeping with a meal from a fast-food outlet than what federal guidelines regard as nutritious.

This yawning discrepancy--between what students should eat, and what most actually pile onto their trays--has become a central issue in the national debate over what to do about the growing number of overweight young Americans.

For the first time in five years, Congress will take up the school-lunch issue, writing legislation that will affect the diet of 27 million public-school students.

School nutrition programs, including breakfast, lunch, and after-school snacks at school, make up most of the daily food intake for millions of children. The U.S. Department of Agriculture spends $10 billion a year on the programs.


But school-lunch programs are ultimately overseen by local officials, who usually require the programs to act like businesses and cover their costs or even make a profit. To that end, cafeterias also serve a la carte foods that, though higher in fat, sugar, and calories, are what students prefer.

With so much choice, only half of students choose the more-nutritious federally subsidized meals--and then many do not eat everything, leaving the vegetables.

In most schools across the country, the cafeteria managers, principals, and athletic coaches also undermine the relatively healthful meals because they need to raise money. They load up vending machines, from which they receive part of the profits, with high-fat, high-calorie, high-sugar candy, cookies, chips, and ice cream. The school districts also sell vending-machine rights to soft drink companies.


During a lunch hour at Albert Einstein High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, not long ago, students bought 440 servings of french fries--the most popular item by far. Another 360 students bought the fully prepared lunch. The cafeteria also sold 187 snack cakes, 118 slices of pizza, and 56 bags of potato chips. At the bottom of the list were three bowls of soup and three fresh salads.

With an epidemic of obesity among the young--the proportion of overweight children is now 15 percent--experts say changes in school lunches offer the best chance of weaning youths from the sugar and fat that is ruining their health.

"It is ironic that the school food program began because many young recruits in World War II were malnourished and physically incapable of meeting the demands of military life," says Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), the ranking minority member of a House subcommittee that oversees the Agriculture Department's spending. Today the problem is overweight schoolchildren who, Kaptur says, "are given more choices perhaps with less guidance than ever before."

In a report on obesity in 2001, Dr. David Satcher, who was then the Surgeon General, pinpointed school meals as one of the eight major areas where Americans should begin to battle fat. The report also discussed another culprit--the disappearance of daily exercise from school programs.

School officials have been cutting physical-education classes and recesses to make time for academic courses. As a result, high-school students taking daily physical-education classes dropped from 46 percent in 1991 to 29 percent in 1999.

Eric Bost, undersecretary of agriculture for food and nutrition, says exercise is often the forgotten part of a health program. "For me," he says, "the solution is threefold: Increase the overall consumption of fruits and vegetables, increase physical activity, and reduce consumption of other foods."


Improving students' eating habits will require significant changes in what the Agriculture Department permits schools to serve, and in the laws Congress is willing to pass.

The department buys surplus foods from farmers, many of which are high in fat, especially saturated fat, and turns them over to schools. For school meals in 2002, the Agriculture Department spent $338 million on surplus beef and cheese, but only $159 million on fruits and vegetables, mostly canned and frozen.

Advocacy groups for children and the poor have asked Congress to add $1 billion to the school-meals budget, a figure that could help wean schools from vending machines and invest in simple equipment to prepare fresh produce. Bost says the Bush administration will ask for little or no increase in financing. Instead, he says the administration hopes to find additional money by weeding out students who are ineligible for free or subsidized school meals.

It will take additional spending to persuade schools to ban vending machines. They provide money for 98 percent of public high schools, 74 percent of middle schools, and 43 percent of elementary schools, according to federal statistics. More than half of those machines operate in direct competition with the school lunch hour.


A handful of schools have been taking action. Some now require drinks in vending machines to include some fruit juice. Entire school districts have banned vending machines.

Some schools offer fruit at half the price of a candy bar and charge less for water than they do for a soft drink. In 17 states, from California to Vermont, small local farmers have signed contracts to supply schools with fresh produce.

In Opelika, Alabama, when Tianna Summers, 17, puts a fork full of fresh lima beans in her mouth in the school lunchroom, she is eating a vegetable seldom seen in other American schools.

"Junk food," Summers says, polishing off a meal of barbecued pork, the lima beans, and a salad, "is not the center of our universe."


Soft drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks 76.3%
Salty snacks not low in fat 63.5
Baked goods not low in fat 55.6
100% fruit or vegetable juice 53.4
Low-fat salty snacks 51.9
Nonchocolate candy 48.8
Chocolate candy 46.6
2% or whole milk 44.8
Low-fat baked goods 36.4
Ice cream or frozen yogurt not low in fat 35.0
1% or skim milk 24.1
Fruits or vegetables 17.6
Low-fat or nonfat yogurt 14.9


Note: Table made from bar graph.

lesson plans


* Do you or your classmates regularly dine on foods available outside the school-lunch program?

* Which is more important, additional academic classes or restoring physical-education classes?

* Would you be concerned if your school cafeteria began serving irradiated meat?


To help students understand the concern about the increasing availability of high-fat foods in America's schools.


CRITICAL THINKING/DISCUSSION: Have students discuss four key issues in the school-lunch controversy:

(1) The role of government in the school-lunch program. Is the government's effort to provide nutrition to young people compromised by the kind of food it provides? If students are concerned about the imbalance between nutritious fruits and vegetables and less nutritious meat and cheese, they might use information in this article as the basis for a letter expressing their concerns to their representative in Congress and/or to President Bush.

(2) The participation of many schools in moneymaking programs that offer high-fat foods to students. What does this fact reveal about school budgets? Are too many communities and states providing too little money for schools, thus forcing the search for extra funds?

(3) The eagerness with which so many students choose junk food over nutritious food. Are students easy targets for junk-food ads? Should students, whose choices are restricted in other areas--such as drinking, driving, and voting--be allowed to make unwise nutrition choices while in school?

(4) School-nutrition programs make up most of the daily food intake for millions of American children. What does this fact suggest about income .disparity in the country? How many families cannot afford to regularly provide nutritious meals for their children?


Whatever students' food preferences, you might assign them to research the food available in their school on an average day--both the food in the regular lunch program and any food available off the regular program, as part of an a la carte offering, in vending machines, or other sources. Have them make a list of off-program foods and compare their list with items in the graph on page 10.

Upfron QUIZ 1

MULTIPLE CHOICE DIRECTIONS: Circle the letter next to the correct answer.

1. For the first time in five years, a federal government body will take up the issue of school lunches. Any new law resulting from their action will affect the diets of 27 million public-school students. Name the government body.

a U.S. Department of Agriculture

b Congress

c Department of Health and Human Services

d Office of the U.S. Surgeon General

2. The school-lunch program was initiated because

a American agriculture produced so much surplus food that it was rotting, so the decision was made to give the surplus to schools.

b it was seen as a way to boost farmers' incomes.

c it was seen as a way to reduce families' food costs.

d many young World War II recruits were malnourished.

3. The article reports that many school officials have been cutting something from the school curriculum. Which of the following is expressly identified as suffering cuts?

a music and theater

b interscholastic sports

c physical education

d foreign-language courses

4. Eric Bost, an under secretary of agriculture, says an important part of the key to better nutrition for school students is eating more fruits and

a lean meat.

b milk

c fish.

d vegetables.

5. Which of the following is the best term to describe the food the federal government buys for the public-school lunch program?

a surplus

b dairy

c meat

d vegetables

6. Advocacy groups for children have asked the government to add another $1 billion to the school-lunch program budget to help schools buy the equipment they need to produce higher quality food. What is the Bush administration's response to the proposal? The President

a remains neutral on the issue.

b wants to cut the school-lunch budget.

c wants to dramatically raise the school-lunch budget.

d plans to ask for little or no increase in the budget.

7. Ninety-eight percent of public high schools, 74 percent of middle schools, and 43 percent of elementary schools earn extra money from

a their school-lunch programs

b food vending machines.

c student sales of magazine subscriptions.

d student-run car washes.

8. School lunch programs in 17 states are buying fresh produce from

a the federal government.

b their state governments.

c local farmers.

d national food chains.

9. Treated meat designed to prevent food poisoning will soon be showing up in many school lunches. The meat will be

a irradiated.

b dried.

c boiled.

d cured.

10. The most available offering outside lunch programs is

a fruit juice.

b soft drinks.

c fruit.

d milk.

11. The least available offering outside lunch programs is

a candy.

b cookies and cakes.

c low-fat/nonfat yogurt.

d ice cream.

12. The new Healthy Eating Pyramid proposed by Harvard University nutritionist Walter Willett says no to

a red meat.

b grains.

c dairy foods.

d poultry.


1. (b)

2. (d)

3. (c)

4. (d)

5. (a)

6. (d)

7. (b)

8. (c)

9. (a)

10. (b)

11. (c)

12. (a)

RELATED ARTICLE: An international school-lunched tour.

Congress as vowed to take up the highly polarized issue of school lunches this spring with the reauthorizastion of the law that helps states pay for school lunches. The attention comes not a movement too soon. While school lunches have never approached haute cuisine, some adults can recall a time when trays of mystery meat and creamed corn offered a sort of bonding experience, something to be suffered through together, like showers after phys. ed.

Today few students work up enough sweat in school to require a shower, and many are swapping the government-sanctioned "meat and two veggies" lunch for candy bars, ice cream, and soda from the cafeteria vending machines. And who can blame them? Choosing soggy broccoli, gray pot roast, and an apple over pizza, chips and chocolate cupcakes seems, well, almost un-American.

The problem, of course, is that American children are among the fattest in the world, and the readily available junk food has plenty to do with setting up unhealthy eating habits. Meanwhile, other nations focus on the basics: Appetizing yet healthful, these lunches offer children all the choice they need.--Ellen Ruppell SHell

Ellen Ruppel Shell is co-director of the Knight Center for Science and Mecial Journalism at Boston University and author of The Hungry Gene: The Science of Fat and the Future of Thin.

RELATED ARTICLE: No, it's not radioactive.

Irradiated hamburgers may be coming soon to your school cafeteria.

The farm bill that was passed last year directs the Agriculture Department to buy irradiated beef for the federal school-lunch program. It will be up to local school districts to decide if they want it.

Irradiation is a process that uses electrons or gamma rays to kill harmful bacteria like salmonella and a type of E. coil that cause food poisoning. Some people fear, wrongly, that the food is radioactive. Others are concerned that the process hasn't been tested well.

"There is nowhere in the world where a large population has eaten large amounts of irradiated food over a long period of time," says Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

Based on European studies showing the formation of cancer-causing properties in irradiated fat, the European Union, which allows irradiation for certain spices and dried herbs, has voted not to permit any further food irradiation until more studies have been done.

The meat industry says irradiation is necessary because food poisoning has been increasing in schools. It cites a study by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, that said such outbreaks are rising at the rate of 10 percent a year.

But Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the percentage of outbreaks "hasn't changed in the last 10 years." He attributes the statistical change to better reporting.

Barry Sackin, who is a lobbyist for the American School Food Service Association, a trade group, says that school districts will have the right to refuse irradiated meat, and when it is used, it will have to be labeled. "The last thing we need is a reporter who puts out a story that kids are served irradiated meat and parents didn't know," he says.--Marian Burros
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Author:Burros, Marian
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 7, 2003
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