School Lunches Get a Garnish
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," says Smith.
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 served ... 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.