Menu comparisons ( .XLS )
What are children eating for school lunch these days?
A call from a concerned Lawrence parent raised my curiosity.
I hadn’t been in an elementary school lunchroom in about 25 years. Since then, the number of overweight children has tripled.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 9 million, or 16 percent, of children ages 6 to 19 are overweight. Another 15 percent are considered at risk of becoming overweight.
Nikki Nollen, assistant professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at Kansas University Medical Center, said schools often are unfairly targeted.
“Many times policymakers, researchers and other folks go after the schools and they forget the other piece of the puzzle, which is that education needs to start at home with the parents,” she said.
A visit to Prairie Park and Langston Hughes schools affirmed what Nollen said.
I found the children to be eating healthier through the school lunch program than those who brought a lunch from home. Sack lunches typically contained brownies, potato chips, cookies or even candy.
Students won’t find such unhealthy choices through the school lunch program.
Paula Murrish, division director of Food Services and Purchasing for the Lawrence school district, said the district has become more aggressive about providing healthier options during the past three years.
It has cut the fat and increased the use of whole-grain products. The district even started targeting salt this year. The goal is to offer at least one main entree that contains less than 480 milligrams of sodium.
Elementary students can pick between two main entrees or opt for a chef salad. Then, they have a number of side items to pick from — mostly fruits and vegetables.
“I do have some parents who would rather that the kids don’t have the option to make the choice. They would rather have us serve them,” Murrish said. “But we still believe if we put peas on their tray, they are not likely to eat them. If they put the peas on their tray, they will.”
Count 11-year-old Morgan Davidson, a fifth-grader at Prairie Park, among those eating her peas. She planned to clean her tray, which also contained a chicken crispito, apple slices, skim chocolate milk and a package of Clodhoppers, which are chocolate-covered graham clusters that have 5 grams of fat and 160 calories.
She sat next to Skylor Harrell, 10, also a fifth-grader who opted for salad, apple slices, a beef crispito and chocolate skim milk.
Highly regulated menu
The school’s main menu is state regulated. For example, its main entrée items must contain less than 30 grams of fat and 9 grams of saturated fat on average for the week.
The district has gone a step further by offering healthy a la carte items as well.
“If we didn’t have regulations for a la carte, that means we haven’t grown or we haven’t moved forward in our wellness initiatives,” Murrish said.
The goal is for a la carte items — that are not offered as part of the main menu — to have no more than 4 grams of fat and 9 grams of sugar per 100 calories and no more than 200 calories per serving.
Parents control whether their children are allowed to eat a la carte items. That could be anything from a bag of Clodhoppers to an apple. An extra slice of pizza is considered a la carte if the student gets a reimbursable meal.
So, what constitutes a reimbursable meal, which costs $2.10, for an elementary student? The government says a student must take a main entrée and one other item, which could be anything from milk to a serving of vegetables.
Murrish said the students are regulated at the cash register.
“If a parent says no a la carte, then the child must take a reimbursable meal if they are eating with us,” she said.
If the child comes through with just fruits and vegetables on the tray, the cashier would make the child go back and pick a main entrée. Also, one carrot wouldn’t be considered a serving size. The student would be sent back for more.
Murrish said they do not super-size their portions either. She said food service employees try to monitor the amount of food each student takes, but it’s not easy when serving 6,100 meals per day.
Melissa Sloan thinks the district needs to do a better job of monitoring elementary school students.
She recently ate with her son, a fourth-grader at Sunflower School, for the first time since moving to Lawrence in September. She said she watched children who only ate 100-calorie packages of cookies or trail mix along with a drink.
“The kids that my child ate with didn’t choose the vegetable or the fruit,” she said. “There was this kid that was overweight and he walked by with a milk, a couple of juices and half of his tray was filled with the trail mix, and I didn’t see anything else on his tray.”
Murrish said the children are allowed only a certain amount of trail mix and only one package of cookies. Such incidences of overindulgence, she said, shouldn’t happen.
Sloan also was surprised to see cheese and crackers as a main menu option.
But when the district looked into children’s sack lunches, the students often had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or crackers and cheese. So the district offers both of them on various days as a main entrée option. Murrish said they are whole-wheat crackers and a low-fat version of string cheese.
Still, Sloan thinks elementary schoolchildren should be encouraged to eat a more balanced meal. Among the other options on the menu that day were a barbecue pork sandwich, scalloped potatoes and fruit salad.
“We are sending our children to school and hoping that they are getting the same type of care as we would give,” she said. “We are also paying for something that I don’t think our children are receiving. It’s just really frustrating.”
Her son formerly attended a small-town area school that wouldn’t allow students to move on to dessert until they had permission.
“They had to eat a percentage, if not all of their main line, before they could move on,” she said. “Maybe I am spoiled? Maybe I expect too much?
“It’s at this age where we are supposed to be molding our children and helping them decide what healthy eating habits are. I didn’t think the school was doing that.”
Starts at home
Rebecca Batson, outpatient dietitian for the Department of Pediatrics at KU Medical Center, said most schools nationwide are offering more choices and that could be a problem.
“The more options we give kids, the more we are going to limit their variety,” she said. “If they know that there’s always a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then it’s really easy for a kid to get away from the green beans that they are trying to serve or other healthier options.”
She said it’s difficult to say when children are old enough to make healthy food choices on their own. She said the brain doesn’t finish developing until early adulthood.
“The last part to develop is really the reasoning and the rationale and the ability to have self-control, which I think is probably the hardest thing when we are talking about making a healthy choice,” Batson said. “Kids are very compulsive naturally and so it’s very difficult for them to be able to make that healthy option.”
As long as schools are providing healthy options, Batson doesn’t think it’s necessarily the schools’ responsibility to monitor eating habits. She said the responsibility starts at home, before kids start school and face peer pressure.
“What we know is that kids mimic the behaviors of their parents when they are at school, they are going to do the things that they’ve learned at home,” Batson said. “If mom and dad are not exercising and eating right, then they are not going to either.”
She said she has parents who come into the clinic and say, “My kid only wants the potato chips.” Her reply, “Who buys the potato chips?”
Batson said she recently saw a 2-year-old who had high cholesterol and high insulin levels.
“He is walking down the road to diabetes very, very quickly,” she said. “We see kids that have diabetes at a very, very young age, and it’s because of these habits that we are not teaching them.”