Weighing Healthier Options
Cafeterias must balance nutrition, cost and more
by James Russell
Illinois School Board Journal, May/June 2004
James Russell is IASB director of communications.
School cafeterias in the U.S. serve approximately 4.7 billion meals per year, at an
annual cost of $6.3 billion. A significant portion - 58.8 percent - qualify for
free or reduced-price subsidies from the federal government. Current reimbursement rates
put the value of a free lunch at $2.19.
But at what social cost are these school lunches and breakfasts being served? Some
critics believe the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and its younger sibling National
School Breakfast Program (NSBP) favor economy over food quality; food management
contractors over local authority; brand names over nutrition; and limited school schedules
or multi-purpose facilities over healthy eating environments.
Are these trade-offs contributing to the increasing problem of childhood obesity? Is
local policy able to counteract any, some, most or all of these factors?
The answers are revealed in various studies conducted by both public and private
childhood nutrition groups.
In the 58 years since Congress authorized the National School Lunch Act, many changes
have been implemented to expand the benefits and opportunities of providing healthy,
affordable meals to America's school children. Today, school foodservice operators
serve lunch to 28.8 million children in 99,000 public and private schools and breakfast to
8.4 million children in 77,000 schools every school day, according to the 2004 annual
report of the American School Food Service Association.
In fact, since the NSLP began in 1947, the United States Department of Agriculture
estimates that more than 200 billion school meals have been served. That's a ton of
tater tots ... and a lot of dollars for American farmers.
School food programs increased farm production in 2003 by $870 million, according to
USDA's Economic Research Service. Another $267 million was generated for farm value
(depreciation, etc.). And 7,738 farm jobs were directly related to school nutrition
Combined, the school lunch and breakfast programs spent $3.8 billion in food costs
alone in FY 2001. Dairy and meat products accounted for 44 percent of food purchases for
school meals; fruit and vegetables accounted for 24 percent.
What's for lunch?
But what are we serving to kids? And how healthy, or unhealthy, is it? If current menus
in many schools are any indicator, the answer is probably "not very healthy" as
the trend shifts away from traditional site-prepared meals.
The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management published an abstract last fall
that examined the current status of brand-name fast food use and associated factors in all
447 Indiana districts. The percentage of food service operators using brand-name fast
foods increased from 3 to 24 percent between the 1990-91 and 1998-99 school years. The
desire to increase student interest was the primary reason, and most reported a positive
impact on a la carte revenue, total profits and student participation.
The brand-name food item most often offered was pizza, followed by burritos and
Among the reasons Indiana school food service operators used brand-name fast foods:
- Believed students would participate - 73.5 percent
- Students asked for it - 54.4 percent
- Desire to reduce plate waste - 17.6 percent
- District or food authority decision - 16.9 percent
- Vendor sales idea - 11 percent
- Reduce costs - 5.9 percent
Branded foods were defined in this study as "the use of nationally or locally
labeled products." Three types were identified: manufacturer's branding,
restaurant branding and in-house branding. Brand-name fast food served alone does not
qualify as a reimbursable school lunch under the NSLP. However, the abstract reported that
those foods can be incorporated as part of a reimbursable lunch with other food items.
While these food items must meet USDA nutritional requirements, some fast food
companies targeting school markets have introduced modified versions of their products,
the report said.
Since 1995, federal nutrition standards require that school lunches and breakfasts
limit calories from total fat to 30 percent or less, and saturated fat to less than 10
percent. And while the most recent study of school meals indicates that average fat and
saturated-fat content of school lunches has decreased, they still exceed standards,
according to a July 2003 Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Report.
Although there is no federal regulation currently prohibiting schools participating in
the NSLP from serving brand-name fast foods, some states and local districts have such
rules. According to a U.S. General Accounting Office report cited in this study, 40
percent of the schools not using brand-name fast foods reported local or state regulations
as a reason for not serving them.
Among the reasons cited by Indiana school food service operators for not using
brand-name fast foods:
- Cost too much - 65 percent
- Current menu more nutritious - 54.4 percent
- Fast food prohibited - 11 percent
- Good job without it - 7.1 percent
- Fast food unavailable - 5.5 percent
- Parents oppose it - 5.2 percent
Not every school sold every branded food item every day; the type, number and frequency
increased as school grade levels increased. In fact, most schools offered only one
brand-name fast food item four times a month or less.
The conclusion suggested that school food service operators and policymakers
"investigate all potential variables before deciding whether to embrace this
trend." The report also suggested that fast food companies trying to reach the school
market address these same issues "and be willing to adjust their product recipes to
accommodate nutritional regulations or concerns."
Lunch is served
The transition from traditional to non-traditional menus is frequently facilitated by a
shift to food service management companies.
An increasing number of school districts are switching to food service management
companies, under fixed-rate or cost-reimbursable contracts. As of FY 2000, USDA's
Food and Nutrition Service estimated that 8.5 percent, or 1,648, of the 19,329 local
school food authorities nationwide had contracted with private firms to operate their
school lunch and breakfast programs.
Among the larger firms operating in Illinois districts are Sodexho School Services of
Middleton, Wisconsin; Preferred Meal Systems of Berkeley, IIllinois; Chartwells School
Dining Services of St. Peters, Missouri; Ceres Food Group Inc. of Chicago; Arbor
Management Inc. of Addison, Illinois; and ARAMARK School Support Services of Lake Forest,
Whether food is prepared and served by private contractors or school food service
operators, the challenge to serve healthy meals in a healthy environment remains constant.
But are the kids eating what is offered or chosen?
The best national estimate available from the USDA indicates that about 12 percent of
calories from food served to students goes uneaten.
In a report published by its Economic Research Service in March 2002, possible causes
may include wide variations in student appetites and energy needs, differences between
meals served and student preferences, scheduling constraints and availability of foods
from competing sources (vending machines, school stores, etc.)
The report also examined evidence of strategies that may reduce such waste, including
the offer versus serve provision (student choice), scheduling lunch before recess and
improving food quality.
Not surprisingly, the report found that salad, vegetables and fruit were the most
common wasted items. And the cost of this plate waste? According to the ERS report, $600
million per year.
Time to eat
Another factor in the nutrition debate, one frequently mentioned by school food service
operators, parents and even students, is time allowed for eating. While studies show a
wide variance in the length of school lunch periods, anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes,
actual eating time was found to be very consistent among students of all ages.
According to "Eating at School," a series of national time studies conducted
between 1997 and 1999 for the National Food Service Management Institute, University,
Mississippi, students required approximately 10 minutes, on average, to eat their lunch.
What varied most, however, were service times (serving, payment, cleanup, etc.) and
"Socializing is an important aspect of dining because allowing students sufficient
time to relate to others provides a break in routine and refreshes them for afternoon
classes," the NFSMI reported stated.
Student participation and food choice is also influenced by other factors that food
service operators and policymakers need to consider.
Different researchers have identified a number of meta-categories, including the role
of sensory attributes, the socio-cultural context, the physical and social environment,
marketing, and economic influences, according to another abstract published in Fall 2002
in The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management.
Sensory attributes over food acceptance deal with the appearance, texture and flavor of
the food item. Socio-cultural context of food choice include both indirect effects (body
image, knowledge and beliefs about food and nutrition, etc.) and direct effects (peers,
parents or teachers). The physical environment includes such factors as lighting,
decoration and comfort. Marketing involves accessibility of food (display and food service
layout), in addition to price and promotion. Economic factors were also identified in the
report, involving the family structure (single parent and/or two working parent homes),
and discretionary income available for food purchase.
"Altering the school environment by manipulating physical and social dimensions is
a very inexpensive and simple alternative that needs to be better understood," the
Of these secondary categories, parental beliefs about school meals and nutrition in
general may offer the best opportunity for nutrition education advocates to effect
behavioral changes in eating habits.
The attitudes, beliefs and intentions to encourage elementary children's
participation in the NSLP were studied among students in grades K-3 attending 15 schools
in seven southeastern states. Researchers concluded that 79 percent of parents
"intended to encourage their child to participate in school lunch," meaning
there was a strong correlation between parent intent and child behavior.
But significant gaps between beliefs and importance placed on beliefs were also
For example, only 31 percent of parents knew how much their child eats in school; 56
percent believed that school lunches were better than sack lunches brought from home; 64
percent believed their child had adequate time to eat at school; and 79 percent agreed
that school lunches saved time and were convenient.
Using this data, school food service programs can target parents "using persuasive
messages as a way to positively reinforce favorable beliefs, or perhaps even change
negative beliefs and encourage participation in the NSLP," the report concluded.
Such messages could assure parents that school meals have:
- Nutritional content and student preferences in school lunch menus.
- Pleasant eating environments and adequate time allowed for lunch.
- Healthy foods that students like.
"Parents should be recognized as influential customers of the NSLP," the Journal
abstract continued, adding that they are more likely to support school decisions when they
have a voice in those decisions.
Whether a school district prepares and serves its own meals or contracts with vendors,
serves or prohibits brand-name foods, alters cafeteria environments, school lunch
schedules and lengths, opens or closes campuses during meal hours, enforces or adds to
strict nutritional standards, prohibits or allows access to vending machines and school
stores, or involves students and parents in the meal planning process, nutrition experts
seem to agree: an integrated approach to nutrition education is needed.
Only then can local school board policy and school food service operations make those
decisions and accurately reflect the community's values and beliefs toward nutrition
choices in the cafeteria.
"Current Status of and Factors Associated With the Use of Brand-Name Fast Foods in
Indiana Schools Participating in the National School Lunch Program," Barbara J.H.
Yoon, Barbara A. Almanza, Stephen J. Hiemstra, The Journal of Child Nutrition &
Management, American School Food Service Association, Fall 2003
"Do Healthy School Meals Cost More? Joanne Guthrie, Food Assistance and Nutrition
Research Report Number 34-6, Economic Research Service, United States Department of
Agriculture, July 2003
"Eating at School: A Summary of NFSMI Research on Time Required by Students to Eat
Martha T. Conklin, Laurel G. Lambert, National Food Service Management Institute,
University MS, April 2001
"A Healthy School Meal Environment," Katherine Ralston, Jean Buzby, Joanne
Guthrie, Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Report Number 34-5, Economic Research
Service, United States Department of Agriculture, July 2003
"Impact of the Environment on Food Choices and Eating Habits of School-Age
Children: A USDA-Sponsored Research Agenda Conference," Peter L. Bordi, et.al., The
Journal of Child Nutrition & Management, American School Food Service Association,
"Importance of Child Nutrition Programs to Agriculture," Kenneth Hanson, Food
Assistance and Nutrition Research Report Number 34-2, Economic Research Service, United
States Department of Agriculture, July 2003
"Parental Beliefs Toward the National School Lunch Program Related to Elementary
Student Participation," Laurel G. Lambert, Martha T. Conklin, J.T. Johnson, The
Journal of Child Nutrition & Management, American School Food Service Association,
"Plate Waste in School Nutrition Programs: Final Report to Congress," Jean C.
Buzby, Joanne F. Guthrie, Economic Research Service, United States Department of
Agriculture, March 2002
Program History and Data, National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, Food &
Nutrition Service, United States Department of Agriculture, December 2003
2002-03 Annual Report, American School Food Service Association
2003 Exhibitors' Guide, Joint Annual Conference, Illinois Association of School
Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators, Illinois Association of School
Weighing Healthier Options
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