National School Lunch Week runs through Friday, and schools throughout the country are celebrating nutrition while their menus are lined with cheeseburgers, tacos and “pancake on a stick.”
“The theme, ‘Lots 2 Love,’ encourages students and school nutrition professionals across the country to share what they love most about school lunch programs,” according to a news release from the School District of Manatee County.
On June 26, the school board approved up to $450,000 in spending for a healthier version of Domino’s Pizza. The district spent about $410,000 on the pizza last year, according to meeting minutes.
Alongside daily servings of fruit, vegetables and milk, Manatee’s elementary schools have served tacos (9 grams of saturated fat and 715 milligrams of sodium) and cheeseburgers (10g of saturated fat and 700 mg of sodium).
Its middle schools have offered mozzarella sticks (4g of saturated fat and 740 mg of sodium), and its high schools recently dished out baked ziti pasta (8g of saturated fat and 1,522 mg of sodium.)
Pancake on a stick (4.5g of saturated fat and 360 mg of sodium) is a breakfast “favorite,” according to the Nutrislice, an online database of school menus.
Some health advocates see a need for improvement, while district leaders see a vast improvement over menus offered less than a decade ago.
Former President Barack Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, prompting the first overhaul of school meals since 1995.
“This historic legislation marked the most comprehensive changes to the school nutrition environment in more than a generation,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It empowered the USDA to form new regulations for school lunch and breakfast programs, and the agency issued its guidelines in 2012:
- Previously, schools could serve less than one cup of fruit and vegetables combined.
- They must now serve at least half a cup of fruit and at least 3/4 cup of vegetables.
- Vegetables in different colors and forms should be served each week.
- Schools can offer fresh, frozen, canned or dried fruits.
- District are now required to offer foods that are whole grain-rich, meaning 50 percent of the product is whole grains, while the remaining grains are “enriched.”
- Milk must be fat-free or, if unflavored, it can be low-fat milk.
- Sodium should be gradually reduced through 2023.
- The new guidelines effectively banned foods that contain trans fats.
- A requirement for saturated fat remained the same. Such fats should be no more than 10 percent of the total calories.
But the USDA is already softening its guidelines, citing repeated obstacles created by Congress, and the ongoing struggle to develop foods that are both healthy and enticing.
“Manufacturers must overcome numerous challenges before some of the school meal products are widely acceptable to children and schools,” the agency said in a 2017 update.
Schools must offer milk and an entree, along with fruit, vegetables and grains. With the goal of reducing food waste, the USDA announced a provision in 2015 that allows students to decline two of the five offerings, as long as they choose a fruit or vegetable.
School districts were supposed to meet the first of three targets for sodium reduction by 2014-2015, but the program is expected remain on Target I until at least 2020-2021, according to the updated regulations.
And state agencies are granting exemptions from the milk or whole-grain requirements when a school proves “hardship in procuring, preparing, or serving” compliant food.
Uncertainty about the changing regulations is causing the food industry to halt research on new meals. The USDA said it hopes to issue a final report before the 2019-2020 school year, informing companies and school districts of necessary changes.
“If left unaddressed, health experts tell us that our current generation of children may well have a shorter lifespan than their parents,” a USDA report states.
Pizza in schools
New regulations are meant to strike a balance between nutrition and students’ picky eating habits, said Sandra Ford, chief of operations for the Manatee school district.
Ford started as the director of food and nutrition services in 2004 before she accepted her current role in 2015. She previously served as president of the School Nutrition Association.
She said Manatee’s burgers are sandwiched between low-fat cheese and a whole-grain bun. The district’s tacos, pancakes and mozzarella sticks also incorporate whole grains.
When asked if whole-grain bread or reduced-fat ingredients make burgers and pizza healthy, Ford said the food is “healthier,” adding that Manatee’s food is better than meals found outside of school.
She said Domino’s created its school pizza with a whole-grain crust and low-sodium sauce, along with reduced-fat cheese and pepperoni. The pizzas sell for $2 a slice in middle and high schools, while elementary schools order the pizza for celebrations.
The school version of Domino’s cheese pizza is 260 calories per slice, each containing 3.5g of saturated fat and 540 mg of sodium. A normal slice of the company’s large cheese pizza has 30 more calories per slice, each containing an extra 1.5g of saturated fat and another 80 mg of sodium.
Both pizzas contain varying amounts of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
“To have a school lunch program without pizza is not imaginable to me, because that’s a student choice,” Ford said. “I’ve always been of the philosophy that I want the student to eat.”
And, Ford noted, there are no fried meals in Manatee County. The country fried steak with gravy (4.4g of saturated fat and 241 mg of sodium) is actually baked, according to the Nutrislice website.
Ford emphasized that school nutrition is measured as a weekly average. On Friday, the last day of National School Lunch Week, local high schools will serve nachos with cheese (16g of saturated fat and 1,155 mg of sodium).
Friday’s alternatives are Big Daddy’s Primo Pizza (8g of saturated fat and 570 mg of sodium), a chicken Caesar salad (5g of saturated fat and 856 mg of sodium) or Nashville hot chicken (1g of saturated fat and 380 mg of sodium).
The meals are accompanied by steamed corn, grapefruit, a mini romaine salad and a half-cup of strawberries and blueberries.
Since calories, saturated fat and sodium are averaged on a one-week cycle, Friday’s nachos are balanced with meals that were served earlier in the week, Ford said.
Wednesday’s menu offered a choice of chicken tenders (1g of saturated fat and 380 mg of sodium), a meatball sub (6g of saturated fat and 795 mg of sodium) or a Cobb salad (5g of saturated fat and 724 mg of sodium).
The menu also included cauliflower casserole, baby carrots and a mixed-fruit cocktail.
“It’s about balance and it’s about offerings, and it’s not about good food, bad food,” Ford said. “It’s about you can have a food you really like that may not meet other people’s standards of healthy, but still is a great food choice when it’s put into perspective of the balance.”
The cost of poor nutrition
Though a lacking diet is one of several factors that lead to obesity, school lunches are seen as the first line of defense in a war on poor health.
Obesity affected about 13.7 million children and adolescents in 2015-2016, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It said the annual cost of obesity in America was estimated to be $147 billion by 2008, and that obesity can lead to high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and mental illness, among other preventable diseases and conditions.
“The linkage between poor diets and health problems such as childhood obesity are a matter of particular policy concern, given their significant social costs,” the USDA reported.
Through the National School Lunch Program, formed in 1946 by President Harry Truman, schools receive different cash subsidies for every free, paid or discounted lunch they serve.
Last year, Manatee’s school district served approximately 15,000 breakfasts and 29,000 lunches each school day, and millions of students around the country rely on their schools for a meal each day.
A healthy lunch is critical to energizing their bodies and minds, and that’s why current standards fall short, said Nora Clemens, a licensed nutritionist in Florida since 1989.
Clemens said the USDA should push for less sodium, more whole grains and added transparency when it comes to food coloring, sugar and additives.
And most of all, she said, there needs to be a cultural shift. A middle school student in Colorado urged the USDA to reconsider its new regulations in a 2011 letter.
“We love chocolate milk,” he wrote. “We also like pizza and hamburgers. It is just how we are.”
Clemens believes a healthy attitude should start at home. Students may frequent fast-food restaurants and the snack aisle at their local grocery store, later bringing their expectations to school.
“While improvements have been made, we are not yet at a point where we can rest easy and say we’re serving our children the healthiest diet,” she said.
School menus are available at manatee.nutrislice.com, or via the Nutrislice phone application.
The district said further information is available by calling 941-708-8800 or visiting manateeschoolfood.net.