School lunches have not always been particularly healthy, and the school environment is not always entirely supportive of healthy food choices. Surveys in the early 1990’s showed that lunches exceeded the recommended daily allowances for fat and saturated fats.
In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children (SMI) which included technical and educational resources for schools and new standards for the nutritional content of school lunches. In the years following, the implementation of the SMI program, most schools made changes in lunch menus to comply with national dietary guidelines. An unexpected consequence of these menu changes was a perception among school food authorities that students like the new lunches better than the previous menus by considerable margins. In general, cafeterias managers also tended to report less waste with the new menus as well. In essence, the outcome of making meals healthier for students was to increase students’ enjoyment and reduce the amount of food left on their plates.
School lunches often compete with foods that are not regulated by federal guidelines and often offer limited nutritional value. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2000, 98 percent of high schools, 74 percent of middle schools and 43 percent of elementary schools allowed student purchases of foods and beverages from vending machines, school stores, canteens and snack bars.
Furthermore, some schools choose to offer competing lunch options that are outside the USDA lunch program that are more appealing to students. Among these are a la carte options, particularly prevalent in upper grades, which allow students to choose only items that appeal to them.
A study by the USDA indicated that nine out of 10 schools offer a la carte options for students, principally fruits and vegetables, fruit juices, cookies or other baked goods not low in fat, or pizza, hamburgers and sandwiches. Districts use of a la carte and vending machines can vary widely. A report from California indicated that a la carte sales represented up to 70 percent of all food sold in schools.
A la carte sales represent a shift in school food revenue, and as such, generally are seen as having only limited impact on school budgets. Indeed, because a la carte offerings may be more attractive to students, they may actually increase food sales. Vending machines, on the other hand, generate revenue for school systems, but these gains are offset by losses to school meal programs. In the past, school lunches were derived from mostly local sources and prepared on site just prior to being served. The food industry that supplies restaurant and schools has been able to increase production, preparation and storage along with changes within distribution networks. All these changes signaled a shift to more highly processed foods bought from farms in any number of locations. Schools in the ‘60’s through the 70’s had bigger budgets to spend on kitchen help when the federal government had a surplus of commodities.
Unfortunately, the ‘80’s and ‘90’s burst that bubble and schools were forced to look at ways they could economize. This meant the number of lunch staff who prepared meals from scratch was now thinned out.
Lunches were made in a central kitchen from companies that supplied highly processed, heat-and-eat lunches that were economical and met the nutritional standards. Individual school kitchens were empty of fresh local produce, hot just-made meatloaf, mashed potatoes and freshly baked breads and rolls. The schools could now hire fewer staff that only needed to know how to work on oven and dishwasher, all to keep the budget in check. In order to save their budgets, many schools signed contracts with large beverage companies who were willing to pay millions of dollars to schools for the rights to install their soft drink vending machines in all the schools in the district.
Time marches on. Schools no longer teach Home Economics where students learned from middle school on about cooking, nutrition and making good food choices. Nutrition is something students see on posters in the lunchroom, a handout, and maybe a classroom exercise. Schools are focusing on teaching the core subjects, and health and nutrition are low on the priority list when it comes to state testing.
It is also a very difficult time for schools. On one hand they are discussing how students need to eat healthy and make good choices for lunch, but many schools have become dependant on the revenue from vending machines to cover items not in the budget. So limiting access to vending machines limits their own revenue.
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution.
School nutrition directors often voice concern about the introduction of new foods, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables, into the school lunch program. Specifically, a worry is that students will not eat these foods, thus increasing waste, or will shun school lunches entirely, affecting the financial bottom line of the school lunch program. There have been some success stories that have fresh local produce in the school cafeterias. Students ate the local fresh fruits and vegetables if they were on the menu; it just takes time to get it on the menu. Some successes included a local food day theme in the cafeteria where all local products were served.
First Lady Michelle Obama's Campaign
In an effort to bring together moms and dads, teachers, doctors, nurses and community leaders, First Lady, Michelle Obama, launched the Let's Move! campaign to help tackle the challenge of childhood obesity. Additionally, learn more about the USDA's guidelines for student lunches.
Department of Defense
Since 1994, the Department of Defense (DoD) has allowed hospital, schools and prisons the use of their produce buying services. The Department’s Logistics Agency operates two programs, including one – the DoD Farm to School Program (DoD F2SP) – which specifically seeks out local produce. Both programs are likely to purchase items from nearby, whenever possible. Schools can choose from up to 300 produce items, which vary with the season, to be delivered to them at a place and time that they designate.
Schools take attendance and submit their findings to the government, federal and state. These bodies in turn give the schools a monetary figure per student for lunches. The money is not given to them, but it represents reimbursement for what they bought for lunches. Along with this money, the federal government, through DoD F2SP, offers a wide variety of canned, dried and frozen commodities to purchase at a greatly reduced rate. These commodities can be everything from frozen individual applesauce servings to juices, pasta and beans, even meat.
Currently food service directors make out menus and schedules almost one year ahead of time. They take into consideration how many children they will be serving and what the USDA has deemed bonus commodities that are offered periodically, which can be canned pineapple, dried beans, frozen cherries, dehydrated potatoes and canned sweet potatoes. Food service directors are given a yearly listing of distributors, and companies they can do business with.
These suppliers have met the government criteria to be able to sell to the government. Food service directors use these suppliers for most of their purchases. They order in large quantities that are shipped as needed, which helps since school kitchens have little to no storage space. Many of the fresh products like tomatoes and peppers come from local wholesalers who do purchase fruits and vegetables from area farmers.
One such wholesaler in Toledo, Ohio, does minimally processed products that go to schools and restaurants throughout northwest Ohio. The area wholesalers are on a rotation so that all included in the program get used. The food service directors do have enough play in their budget to go and purchase extra items for treats during the year; they must however, come from a sanctioned supplier.
Commodities offered to the food service people are getting better. The USDA is offering frozen chicken crumbles and chicken burger style patties. They are also offering frozen ham in cubes and thin sliced, so they are not all meals made of burgers. The food service directors get a monthly newsletter from the USDA with updates on what is available.
There are new offerings of turkey products including bulk ground turkey meat for taco filing. There are also new whole grain products that are added to the list of whole wheat flour, rolled oats, regular brown rice, quick cooking brown rice, whole grain spaghetti, rotini, and macaroni.
Food service directors and personnel are able to attend a yearly conference where all the newest products/commodities are shown, and a wide variety of processed food suppliers are there to make sure all schools hear about their products. Seminars at this conference help directors make good healthy decisions about school lunches to make sure they are safe, appealing to the eye, taste great, are lower in fat, salt, sugar and fit in the budget.
This is a huge undertaking for food service personnel. They have the task of trying to keep children happy and well fed at a price that fits the budget. They must try to find different items to fill the vending machines that are healthy, and try to come up with ways the school system can stay in the black.
Today, the nation’s school lunch program is at a crossroad, faced with nutritional and service problems so serious they make news headlines. So many issues are involved: nutrition, facilities, childhood obesity, food service, student disinterest, vending, monetary supports through beverage companies, even lack of recess. All these areas are being addressed at the same time, with the government coming in and mandating health and fitness guidelines.
Nutritional content and quality of foods served are being looked at closely. Most meal components are ordered through the Department of Defense, and local fresh fruits and vegetables are not always considered when dollars are looked at to make sure there is a plus in the bottom line. The Center for Innovative Food Technology (CIFT) is working on a program called the Farm to School Project with a few pilot schools to help them find local resources for products they serve in their cafeteria.
CIFT is willing to look for wholesalers that do indeed purchase fruits and vegetables from local farms. This is an indirect way that the local products will get into the schools. The partnering of the food service director and CIFT will help form a model that can be used in schools throughout northwest Ohio.
An ongoing project is to fabricate a local food item that can be offered to the schools in northwest Ohio. At this time, varieties of apples are being tested for their resistance to browning for a project that would get local, pre-sliced apples into the schools. This project is part of a school lunch task force formed by Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur.
Issues of Importance:
• All children and members of their community should have access to safe, affordable, healthy, and nutritious food.
• Healthy diets positively and directly impact students’ academic performance.
• Children will make healthy choices because of their involvement with food as part of their school curriculum.
• Local agriculture is important historically, and for the future.
• All communities should be investing in their school food system, from the farms, to the cafeterias, to the classrooms.
• School food policy must change to reflect local, healthy, and nutritious foods available to students.
• Food literate children will impact and change family purchasing, cooking, and eating patters.
• Through education on how our food is grown, harvested and prepared, children will gain confidence, develop thinking skills and feel they can control their own health and food choices, and influence their family’s choices.