Cost constraints and students' palates often make school lunches unhealthful

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

One reason: Kids like them. Another: They can be made cheaply.

"We have a big, big problem," said Susan Rubin, nutritionist and founder of an advocacy group called Better School Food, based in New York. School lunch programs in Ohio and the nation are "a dumping ground for these poor-quality commodity foods."

Most school food comes frozen. It is usually not whole-grain, low-fat or low-sodium. And it's cheap because school districts need it to be. On average, local districts spend less than $1.50 per lunch to buy the food.

The federal government and school districts say they know that most school lunches aren't healthful enough and that more must be done to improve them. Food-service workers say they do the best they can with what they have.

Choosing a menu, buying the food and getting kids to eat cafeteria offerings is a difficult juggling act. "It's pretty hard to feed somebody healthfully on $1," said Rubin, who is featured in a documentary about school food called Two Angry Moms. But she and other critics say kids would welcome more healthful lunches with fewer processed foods.

In July 2008, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report said that students who eat school lunches consume high levels of fat and sodium and fewer fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Even amid the current battle against childhood obesity, school lunches remain high-calorie.

In 2005, for example, 95 percent of the students who ate school lunches ate too much sodium, compared with 88 percent of the children who didn't. A federal study found that two-thirds of schools offered lunches where at least two-thirds of the calories came from fat. That's partly because the federal National School Lunch Program was initially de-signed to battle malnutrition.

On a Friday last school year, Columbus' elementary-school students were offered a grilled-cheese sandwich that cost the district 42 cents, an 11-cent bag of pretzels, some canned fruit, juice and milk. The whole lunch, the cheapest of February, cost the district barely more than $1. The full price for students: $1.75.

For that month, students were offered vegetables other than potatoes three times - raw carrots with ranch dressing twice and mixed vegetables once. Similar menus were offered all year. Schools that participate in the federal lunch program receive inexpensive (and sometimes free) commodities such as raw chicken and bulk cheese.

Although USDA nutrition rules say schools must offer a certain number of items from each food group, they don't go beyond that. The rules don't dictate that chicken must be skinless or roasted or that cheese must be low-fat. That's how items such as Cheetos Cracker Trax and pretzels can be counted as grains and tater tots as vegetables.

At least two servings of fruits or vegetables must be served per meal. But frozen vegetables and canned fruit tend to be more cost-effective than fresh produce. "We try" to order fresh fruits and vegetables, said Brenda Wolf, head cook at Whitehall-Yearling High School. But often, cost dictates that "we get frozen instead of canned."

The most popular commodity items bought by the state are chicken, which the state sends for processing into nuggets, patties and strips; ground beef for tacos and sloppy joes; and mozzarella cheese for pizza, stuffed breadsticks and breaded cheese sticks.

The federal lunch program does offer some lower-fat options and whole grains such as dried beans, whole-wheat flour and brown rice. But these aren't kids' favorites, so the state doesn't buy many of those items.

Some districts bypass the state to offer more healthful foods, and many have sought more health-conscious ways to prepare them.

In South-Western schools, cooks are serving ultra-grain, reduced-fat macaroni and cheese. It has about 100 fewer calories and 200 fewer grams of sodium per serving and is slightly lower in fat. "We really work at sneaking (healthful) things in," said Beth Glitt, food-services director there. The cafeterias often serve soy products on Fridays and have ditched traditional mini corn dogs for turkey dogs. All of those items are bought by the district using commodity dollars.

Likewise, many kitchens nationally have traded in their deep-fryers. "Everything is bakeable," said Connie Fatseas, food-services director in Reynoldsburg schools, where nothing is fried anymore.

Children from low-income families can qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Last school year, for children on a free lunch program, districts received $2.57 from the government; districts get $2.17 for a reduced-price lunch and 24 cents for a paid lunch. That reimbursement amount is expected to rise slightly this school year, but the new figures aren't available yet.

After districts pay for labor, plates and forks, they often are left with less than $1.50 to cover food costs, which are on the rise. "We're hearing it's harder for them to make ends meet," said Todd Barnhouse, who oversees health, safety and nutrition for the state Education Department. The state receives almost $500 million in federal food programs annually.

Nationally and in central Ohio, food-service departments in public schools must run a tight ship. They operate separately from their districts' general funds, meaning they have to make enough money to cover their costs. That's why school districts - even small ones - buy in bulk. And many have switched from planning menus week-by-week to planning them in cycles.

For example, there might be five weeks' worth of menus that repeat all year. It makes planning easier for food workers and also works well with the commodity program because schools can order more food at once, cutting delivery costs.

Fresh food is more expensive. South-Western is one of a handful of school districts in Ohio that participate in a federal program that provides money to buy fresh produce. That's how the district is able to buy more healthful fruits and vegetables such as green peppers, cantaloupe and strawberries. Still, commodities money can stretch only so far.

Carole Smith, head cook at Park Street Intermediate School in Grove City, said she knows exactly what she'd buy with more money. "Kids like grilled chicken, and it's healthy," she said. It's also more expensive, so it hasn't joined breaded versions on the school's menu yet. Chicken nuggets often contain other, less expensive chicken parts.

Having a shoestring budget shouldn't limit school cafeterias to serving chicken nuggets and fries, some argue. "It's largely a state of mind. They've been told by everybody from the USDA to school-nutrition associations and food-and-beverage agencies that it's easier and cheaper to serve the processed and convenience foods," said Kate Adamick, a chef and food-systems consultant based in New York City. "They bought into that."

That belief became ingrained in the 1960s and '70s, Adamick said, when convenience foods became popular and the food-and-beverage industry started to influence school cafeterias. "It wasn't too difficult for school administrators to say, 'Hey, look at all these new products, we can just pop those in the oven and heat and serve,'" she said. "Now we're in the fourth decade of relying on a system that may be inexpensive, but is extremely costly in terms of the health of our children."

Adamick thinks a few small changes - such as taking advantage of some of the more healthful commodities offerings and accepting raw chicken from the government instead of sending it to a processor - could reverse the trend. And that wouldn't cost a dime, she said.

Rubin thinks it might take a little more money to buy fresh, local food. "I'm not going to lie. I think this is an investment," she said. "I think you could do it for $3."

Kids love it, the breadstick isn't very expensive for districts (73 cents in Columbus), and it counts for a bread, cheese and vegetable. So food managers love it, too. Most central Ohio school districts let kids sample new menu items over the summer before they are added to a regular rotation.

The bottom line for any school food is this: If kids won't eat it, a new choice is wasted money. Likewise, foods that don't meet USDA nutrition guidelines also don't make the cut. That's why many districts, including Columbus, have cut cookies out of the menu.

Some schools have found options that are more healthful and are popular with students. An Oriental chicken salad - iceberg lettuce with breaded popcorn chicken and crispy chow mein noodles on top - does well in Whitehall, cafeteria workers said.

New Albany-Plain and South-Western schools report that salads also are popular among older students. "Kids will say, 'Which would be healthier for me?'" when going through the Park Street lunch line, Smith said. "They will ask."

Typical lunches

  • CARROTS 1/2 cup

    29 calories (0 from fat)

    0g fat, 37mg sodium

    Cost: 15 cents

  • MILK 8 oz.

    100 calories (20 from fat)

    2.5g fat, 125mg sodium

    Cost: 26 cents

  • POTATO SALAD 1/2 cup

    156 calories (74 from fat)

    8g fat, 561mg sodium

    Cost: 18 cents


    150 calories (144 from fat)

    16g fat, 260mg sodium

    Cost: 10 cents

  • PEPPERONI PIZZA 5.5-oz. slice

    400 calories (130 from fat)

    15g fat, 950mg sodium

    Cost: 78 cents


    $1.47 for food

    $1.03 for tray, silverware and preparation/operations

    $2.50 for sample meal

Photos by Eric Albrect/Dispatch