- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 10, 2000

When school began in Montgomery County last week, a good portion of the 132,000 public school students were served hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, Tater Tots and peaches for lunch.
For the students, it was just another lunch, one of nearly 200 that will be served this school year. To the Montgomery County food and nutrition services staff and the food service staff in the other area districts it was the start of a cycle of planning, analyzing, ordering and preparing that ensures the county's schoolchildren are being served a balanced lunch.
Whether the children are eating it is another story. If they are, however, they are likely getting a decent meal, says Keith Ayoob, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).
"A lot of thought goes into formal school lunches," Mr. Ayoob says. "But the quality depends to some degree on the choices the student makes. If the meal includes fruit and they choose to eat that, great. If not, it might not be a balanced meal."
Because most schools rely on subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the schools must meet specific guidelines when planning menus. That means the lunches offered to 26 million children each day must meet the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends no more than 30 percent of calories come from fat and less than 10 percent come from saturated fat. School lunches also must provide one-third of the recommended daily allowances or protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories.
Those schools that meet the guidelines and receive financial subsidies can also choose to purchase food staples such as peanut butter, fruit juice and frozen fruits and vegetables at a reduced cost.
Schools can choose to plan meals based on a computerized nutritional analysis of the food, or choose to plan menus using standard amounts of meat or meat substitutes, vegetables and fruit, grains, bread and milk.
Either way, it is an involved process to get from government requirements in a handbook to fish sticks on a plate, says Kathy Lazor, Montgomery County food and nutrition services director.
"Our planning takes place three months before the menu is served to students," says Mrs. Lazor, a registered dietitian. "Because menus have to meet the federal guidelines, we have an eight-week cycle menu, and we know each day meets the requirements."
Elementary school menus are sent home to parents. High school offerings are posted on a Web site. But with more than 100,000 students in the system, Mrs. Lazor knows it is nearly impossible to please everybody.
"We have a reasonable amount of vegetarians and children who don't eat meat for religious reasons," she says. "So we have meatless options.
We also have to beware of food allergies, which are a growing problem.
Based on routine purchases, we have certain foods which we can comfortably say do or do not contain something such as peanut oil, which many children are allergic to."
In Fairfax County, vegetarian options available even at the elementary school level include peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, yogurt and fruit salad.
Still, in every school district there is the challenge of serving something that is nutritious enough to please the parents and appealing enough to be eaten by the students.
"Perception is a big problem," Mrs. Lazor says. "The parents only know what they are hearing from their children. Many parents haven't seen a school lunch since they were in school. School lunches have changed significantly since then in quality, choice and in atmosphere. We get both positive and negative feedback."
Of course, the best customer service survey can be done by looking around the cafeteria.
Pizza is still the No. 1 choice, followed by burgers and chicken nuggets, Mrs. Lazor says. Another big seller is pancakes.
"That's always a hit," she says.
Barbara Gollman, a registered dietitian and an ADA spokeswoman, says schools have had to alter their offerings to appeal to the taste buds of children who have grown up with fast food. However, she says doing so is acceptable because schools still have to meet the USDA guidelines.
"The USDA has put a tremendous amount of attention into school lunches," she says. "Schools are doing a better job nutritionally. But people still have that impression that school and hospital food is bad food. That is hard to overcome."
Even with the government standards, it is a tough job for schools to pick up the nutritional slack. The USDA reports that 1 percent of American youth meets the overall recommendations of the department's Food Guide Pyramid, that 45 percent of elementary school children eat less than one serving of fruit and 20 percent eat less than one serving of vegetables on any given day. Ninety-one percent eat too much saturated fat.
The 1992 USDA-sponsored School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study, which interviewed 3,550 students nationwide about their eating habits, found that the children who ate the school lunch were exceeding the daily recommendations of fat. However, the school lunch-eaters were more likely than those who didn't eat school lunches to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more milk and eat fewer sweets and salty snacks.
In the years since that survey, the USDA has organized a "Team Nutrition" project aimed at helping students make healthier choices and school food service staffs come up with appealing, nutritious dishes.
"Our kids are flunking healthy eating," Dorothy R. Caldwell, deputy administrator for the USDA's special nutrition program, said in a speech to the American School Food Service Association earlier this year. "But there is evidence that students who eat the school lunch may be making a better healthy eating grade than those who make other choices."
While most elementary schools students are served a standard lunch (at a price of about $1.60), high school students are generally offered more choices. That includes the good such as make-your-own deli sandwich bars and salad bars and the bad such as doughnuts, chips, soda vending machines, even fast-food franchises in some schools.
"The difficulty I have with school lunches is the choice," says Dr. Les Ellwood, a Fairfax County pediatrician and chairman of the school liaison committee for the Fairfax County Medical Society. "Schools might be offering fruit, but kids will still pick the french fries and Coke. The offerings are nutritious, but you can't force a kid to eat them."
Dr. Ellwood also is critical of the time restraints children are under during lunchtime. Because of crowded schools and the need to cram more academics into a school day, many students get about a half-hour for lunch.
"The lines to get lunch are so long in some schools," Dr. Ellwood says. "By the time they go through them, many kids only have 10 minutes to eat. We have got to find a way to get food to kids in a quick way."
With that in mind, Ms. Gollman says the best way to ensure good nutrition is to make sure students eat a good breakfast. That way, eating french fries or even skipping lunch won't do much harm.
"If you give them breakfast, then they won't be so starved by lunchtime and will be able to make better food decisions," she says. "Children who eat breakfast will have more energy and will be ready to learn."
Another way to ensure healthy eating is to pay attention to what the school is offering. Ms. Gollman advises keeping a copy of the lunch menu in the kitchen and going over it with your child. It would be a perfect opportunity to talk about making healthy food choices both at school and at home.
It's also a good idea to taste the food for yourself. Many schools have a parent advisory committee for the school food service program.
"We do quite a bit of tasting with parent-teacher association groups," Mrs. Lazor says. "We encourage parents to come in and have lunch. We attend back-to-school night and talk to parents about the food."

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