Archive for Monday, April 27, 2009

School lunch programs strive to be healthy, but habits begin at home

Morgan Davidson, 11, eats some peas as part of her school lunch at Prairie Park School. School district officials have tried over the past few years to improve the nutrition value of the meals that are served to students.

Morgan Davidson, 11, eats some peas as part of her school lunch at Prairie Park School. School district officials have tried over the past few years to improve the nutrition value of the meals that are served to students.

April 27, 2009


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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.

Healthier options

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.

Monitoring kids

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.”


Leslie Swearingen 9 years, 1 month ago

I want you people to stop telling parents what they can and can not feed their own children. There is nothing wrong with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Or crackers and cheese. Mind your own business and you won't be minding mine.

Robert Rauktis 9 years, 1 month ago

If these people want to be fat, let them. They suffer the consequences. They later could have to write for the LJW's sports section. Or be expert "fans". Besides, they'll be too fat to procreate. Ultimate Darwinism. "Yeah, the school PUT that Big Mac in my mouth."

inglec 9 years, 1 month ago

I have had the opportunity to partake of school meals with my grandchildren numerous times and unfortunately do not deem the school lunch program all that great. To much of the menu is prepared food and just warmed up by the so called cook in the kitchen. In my school days the cooks actually prepared the food. My mother worked in the kitchen in my school and had to be at work by 4 a.m. to begin preparing the lunch for that day, which could include dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls, and the remainder of the meal for the lunch that day. If we really want to feed the children at good healthy meal then stop feeding them so much prepared food.

Leslie Swearingen 9 years, 1 month ago

If people want to be skinny let them. Are you angry because you were taught to repress your desire for food, and you are always hungry, and always angry? Fat people have sex, trust me.

lounger 9 years, 1 month ago

Its not just "Fat" that creates this problem. "Fat" is essential! Overdoing "Fat" is bad-Yes-but if Children dont get it then kids cannot grow correctly. I recently went to a dinner where Rabbit stew was served (complete with veggies). I had some and it was wonderful. Besides the Chef of the stew (who was from Australia) I was the only one out of half a dozen people who ate it. All others had so called "healthy" foods-packaged, processed and pretty. Point being we have lost our way with what we consider "healthy". How Fresh are the items on these school lunches? I bet they do not have a veggie patch and a greenhouse to grow the schools food. And why not? It would teach these children something REAL AND USEFUL!

GardenMomma 9 years, 1 month ago

Perhaps if the children had more than 10 minutes to eat, they might be more likely to eat a better balanced meal.

You have 10 minutes to eat, are you going to eat the dessert first or the entree?

SpeedRacer 9 years, 1 month ago

I have had school lunch on occasion with the kid for several years. This year the food tastes a lot worse than last year, and I saw a lot of food being thrown away. Making it more nutritious doesn't matter if the kids won't eat it.

(Bigger concern to me is all that make-up on an 11 year old)

Hilary Morton 9 years, 1 month ago

Garden, they have 30 minutes to eat lunch. Though some are so hungry, they eat it in 10, they are allotted 30 minutes.

Melissa Sigler 9 years, 1 month ago

I find it extremely sad that people don't care if their children are overweight.

How completely irresponsible!

Children are going to face many more problems physically, emotionally, and psychologically if they grow up overweight. They are at high risk for diabetes among other diseases, ridicule and embarassment from classmates, etc etc. The list goes on, this has been proven MANY times over the years.

I'm not saying that children should grow up with unhealthy ideas on the other side of the scale either (being super "model" skinny), but I'm glad to see that school lunches are becoming "healthier" as well. They may not be 4 star restaurant meals, but at least they aren't being given the choice of eating horrible food, candy, and soda from the cafeteria. Its sad that some parents don't care about their children enough to watch what they eat as well.

RKLOG 9 years, 1 month ago

My heartfilled prayers and felted thoughts!

Katara 9 years, 1 month ago

hilary (Anonymous) says…

Garden, they have 30 minutes to eat lunch. Though some are so hungry, they eat it in 10, they are allotted 30 minutes. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ They only have 20 minutes. One of my kids' lunch period is from 11:10-11:30. And half of that time is spent waiting in the lunch line to get their food. My kids barely have enough time to finish their home packed lunch in the time allotted.

One of the reasons behind overeating is that it takes approximately 20 minutes for the stomach to signal that it is full. If one has to inhale their food in less time than it takes for the stomach to signal to the brain it is done, one throws those signals off and it trains the system not to recognize what satiation feels like. We should not be putting these kids in that position.

Hilary Morton 9 years, 1 month ago


The high schools have 30 minutes. My apologies

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