School Lunches Get a Garnish.
Mystery Meat No More
Today's Specials: More Choices, Less Fat
"The latest studies show that we have continued to decrease
the amount of fat in school meals. Deep fat fryers are gone and we are seeing
more oven-baked foods," says Marcia Smith, president of the Alexandria,
VA-based American School Food Service Association.
And students have more lunch choices today. "Things
normally found at breakfast, like bagels, are available at lunch with different
things to go with then -- and there are more salad options for students and
'grab and go' [items] for students who are in a hurry," she says.
"If you contact the majority of districts, you would
basically see that one of the choices every day is a vegetarian entrée such as
a meatless chef salad made with cheese, or a bagel with peanut butter,"
It Takes a Village
"We need a community effort involving parents, faculty,
staff, and other organizations because we don't have students 24 hours a day,
so part of the process is to educate the parents," Smith says.
"It's critical for parents to be aware of what children eat
in school and what they are learning about nutrition," agrees Plainview
Texas' Shirley Igo, president of the National Parent Teacher Association.
"We always encourage parents to visit schools during lunch
and find out what is being served," Igo says. "We know that in many
cases, our schools contract out food services, so it's especially critical to
be aware of who has that contract."
Parents will probably be surprised by what they see, she says.
"In many cafeterias, there are a wide variety of choices -- not just a
single tray," Igo says.
Sandy Procter, RD, a nutritionist at Kansas State University in
Manhattan, Kan., agrees with Igo.
"It's worth a parent's time to check out what kinds of
meals are being served because in many cases they will be pleasantly
surprised," she tells WebMD.
"There are a lot more choices -- including heart-healthy
ones -- and they are very cleverly packaged," she says. "All sorts of
products are being ... from pocket sandwiches in pita bread to wraps that are
screened for a healthy level of fat and sodium."
And, Procter says, substitutions are widely available because
of food allergies and diet constraints.
But school lunch still gets a bad rap, says Sheah Rarback, an
American Dietetic Association spokeswoman and the director of nutrition at the
Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami in Florida.
"It's an easy target because kids are picky eaters, but
school lunch does meet guidelines for having certain nutritional
standards," she says.
"Now the schools are competing with fast-food
establishments, so they are working to make foods competitive and
appealing," Rarback says. The American School Food Service Association
estimates that 13% of U.S. public schools sell fast foods, including food from
such chains as Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Arby's, and Subway.