School lunches: an unhealthy debate

Nutrition-conscious parents grumble, but Minneapolis public school officials say offerings are getting better.

On an average Friday at Barton Open School, students have a choice for lunch: pancakes with turkey sausage (a.k.a. "Brunch for lunch") or cheese pizza. They can also take kiwi fruit, milk and/or juice, and cookies.

Many 1st- and 2nd-graders passing through the lunch line take the fruit and "lunch brunch" - some take everything offered. One older girl simply opts for chocolate milk and a lone pack of cookies.

Dona Dillman, known to Barton's K-8 kids as the "Lunch Lady," said for the decade that she's served meals, she's tried to persuade kids to choose the healthier options. "I do try to tell them to take some salad and fruit," Dillman said. "They're asking for more cookies."

Dillman, a Kingfield resident, said she's watched lunch options grow progressively healthier, but the choice about what to eat is still largely up to the kids.

Some parents say the options aren't healthy enough.

East Calhoun parent Robert Goldman said that while his kids take their lunch to Jefferson School, "I just glanced at the breakfast menus a couple of times and was pretty appalled about how sugary and fatty it seemed. Given the national problem with obesity and diabetes, this didn't seem like a good thing."

Kingfield resident Jeanne Massey, whose 1st-grade son attends Barton, said school lunches contain unhealthy ingredients that are heavily processed, containing starchy fibers, high-fructose corn syrup and harmful oils.

For example, she said a piece of fruit is a healthier and is less costly choice than fruit sitting in a can of corn syrup that necessitates preparation.

Her conclusion: schools have "no business" offering junk food to their kids. Such choices, she said, "shouldn't be available."

In a district wherein 27,500 students eat school lunches each day, how healthful are the meals? If they're too fatty or sugary, is it the kids' fault for making bad choices - or the district's fault for enabling them? And what, if anything, is being done to make school food healthier to eat?

Healthy, or not

Count Kingfield resident Ann Berget as a school lunch critic. "My personal opinion - I'd rather eat the Southwest Journal," Berget said. "My kids would rather go hungry."

Berget served on the Minneapolis School Board from 1992 to 2000, and her children attended city public schools from 1975 to 2002. She said for all those years, "greasy and high-calorie" school lunches were a thorn in her side. Berget said then school workers tried to tell her it wasn't that bad, so she went to a school and tried it herself, which only confirmed her bad opinion.

At Barton, Dillman the Lunch Lady - whose kids attend Minneapolis public schools and eat the lunches - said the food has never bothered her or her kids, except for her high school senior who she joked is tired of the food after 12 years.

Rosemary Dederichs, who directs the district's Food Service Department, acknowledges that not all offerings are the healthiest but said the quality has improved even since Berget served on the School Board.

Dederichs said Minneapolis school food exceeds the U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition requirements specifying "no more than 30 percent of an individual's calories come from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat."

Students still gripe about unhealthy food. In an editorial from the December 2004 issue of The Southerner, South High's newspaper, opinion editor Derek Grisbeck wrote about the manifest lack of healthy options:

"Surely the foods can't be compared as 'healthy vs. unhealthy,' for any student whose has been through the lunch line can tell you about the nachos, cookies and a variety of juices (some of which contain only 3 percent actual fruit juice) offered there you might as well serve up some snacks and ice cold Coca Cola."

Changing options

A February lunch menu for district elementary schools offers contrasting options. There are healthy items such as apples, kiwi as well as bananas, and fatty or sugary offerings including cookies, cupcakes and fried potatoes.

The USDA audited the Minneapolis system last spring; Dederichs said proudly that district food gets 27 percent of its calories from fat (below the 30 percent standard) and 8.7 percent from saturated fat (less than the 10 percent limit).

Such an evaluation is made by computer analysis of each school meal. It does not measure what students actually eat, though students must take three of five nutrition components - such as fruit and vegetables. (Students can take more healthy or unhealthy items, however.)

Dederichs said that the district's offerings are becoming steadily healthier. They have added "fixings bars" - like salad bars - at middle schools and high schools. (She said her department just received a grant to extend the program to six city K-8s, though none is in Southwest.) There are more fresh fruits and vegetables on the menu, and the department requires vendors to provide nutritional requirements before placing orders.

Other improvements include:

– Providing nutritional information in lunchrooms about the food being served;

– Serving only baked chips (in elementary schools);

– Switching from white to wheat and whole-grain rolls; and

– Offering more protein and egg dishes and using a lower-calorie version of corn syrup as a preservative.

Such preservatives are necessary because all school food is produced off-site at a North Minneapolis facility. It is refrigerated or frozen, transferred to the schools, then heated, or "rethermalized." This is done because the schools are old and lack kitchens, Dederichs said.

(Massey contends the district could boost health and cut labor costs by serving more cold lunches - such as a deli food - wherein the food would be less processed.)

Dederichs said menus have steadily improved due to parent suggestions and department efforts to combat childhood obesity and improve nutrition. Still, she wishes the food industry would catch up with the call for healthy food.

"Industry is kind of slow on picking up on the [healthier] direction we want to go," Dederichs said.

For example, some major vendors offer foods with 50 percent of calories from fat - food that doesn't meet USDA standards. "That's nonsense," Dederichs said. "We would not offer anything like that to our children."

A balancing act

Despite her personal and departmental pride, Dederichs said she gets complaints from concerned parents. "Sometimes I get frustrated because we're trying to do the best we can do. We're a work in progress. We're never finished," Dederichs said, adding that she knows such parents mean well.

Recently, Dederichs met with an upset parent from Lake Harriet Community School who was concerned that the cookies offered to 3rd- through 8th-graders were too large. Dederichs, who says she tries to work with parents, said she'd be happy to offer smaller cookies or none at all. After talking about it, the parent opted not to take the cookies off the menu. (Dederichs said they discovered the larger cookies were mostly sold to school staff.)

She said she has to weigh what kids will eat, what's available to the Food Service department and the district's financial constraints. She said menu planning is a true balancing act.

Dederichs said her staff is always trying new ideas - most recently organic cereal at a parent's request - but sometimes a single healthy item costs so much that to absorb the budget hit, the district adds cheaper and often less-healthy items.

For example, she said Kellogg's Smart Start cereal is a healthy breakfast option but relatively expensive. Dederichs said when she added Smart Start, she had to add a cheaper cereal - such as Frosted Flakes - to make her budget work.

Dederichs said industry standards state her department should spend 40 percent of the revenue on food, 40 percent on labor, and 20 percent on things such as transportation and waste disposal. In an effort to provide healthier food that is more expensive, the district spent 47 percent on food in December, she said.

Dederichs said her department has tried various campaigns to push healthy food on kids, but they don't always work, resulting in spoiled and wasted food.

For example, she said, "try a new vegetable day," didn't go over well. At Barton, Dillman said about half of students taking school lunches eat their veggies - but enticing them with high-fat ranch dressing was a must.

A year or two ago, Dederichs said, "We did try to go to our nonsugared cereals, and our breakfast participation dropped like a stone" - by 50 percent.

Said Dederichs, "No matter what we serve, the kids head for the burgers and fries. Sometimes I think our kids don't have time to eat, so they take what they know."

Accommodating kids' desires is vital to the food department's budget. Funding depends on the number of kids served. At high schools, "open campus" means students can eat elsewhere. Elementary kids are trapped, but, said Dederichs, "If kids don't see what they like, they won't eat. Lots of people think they'll eat anything you put in front of them, and that's not the case."

Knowing how the food lunch program is funded offers critical perspective to the issue of school lunches.

How a lunch program works

The food-prep department is largely independent of the district, generating its own income through meal fees and state and federal subsidies. The district pays only to administer staff payroll and benefits, and for the food-production building improvements.

Districts in the National School Lunch Program, such as Minneapolis, receive USDA cash subsidies and donated food. For each student needing a free lunch, Minneapolis Food Service receives $2.24; students qualifying for reduced-price offerings bring in a $1.84 per-meal subsidy; paid lunches earn a 21-cent subsidy.

Donated government food is based on the number of kids served, Dederich said, so enrollment drops means fewer freebies.

For example, the district received $1.2 million in USDA donated food in 2003, but because fewer kids participated, the amount was cut to $775,000 in 2004. Donated foods are ground beef, chicken and turkey patties, canned fruits and frozen vegetables.

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a group of concerned doctors, has concluded that it costs the school districts less to serve fattier foods because the USDA subsidizes the less healthy options.

The feds aren't the only ones. To boost revenue, Dederichs said her department makes a lot of money from a la carte options that include baked chips in K-8 schools, pretzels, popcorn, large milk and water, some juices and yogurt, larger bags of chips and Papa John's pizza slices.

Dederichs said a la carte options are one way to compete with what kids can bring to schools. "It's really frustrating. We want to do what's best for [kids], but we're a business and want to keep our nose above water," she said.

Corporate contracts

Minneapolis also relies on corporate deals to balance the books. Dederichs isn't a huge fan. "The district has a contract with Coca Cola, which ties our hands behind our backs."

The contract prohibits selling things that compete with Coke products, such as healthier options such as V8 Splash juice, according to Greg Mead, the district's director of purchasing. Coke sells sodas (sugared and diet), Minute Maid juices and Dasani bottled water in city schools.

Mead said the four-year-old Coke contract brings in a minimum of $250,000 annually for the district's expenses, and the corporation also pays for school programs, such as Black History month events. The contract can be yearly or last as long as 10 years, Mead said, adding that it is a "great program."

The contract lets Coke put in 230 machines into school buildings (except elementary schools). Mead said this money is important in lean budget times, but "you're between a rock and a hard place," acknowledging the nutrition-versus-funding choice.

Massey said the power of corporate influence exhibited by this contract is "overwhelming." "The district should just say, 'Sorry our door is closed - period,'" she said.

Berget said during her tenure, which ended in 2000, the School Board shut out the soda companies when approached. "We were frankly offended by them and sent them packing," she said.

Mead said there are safeguards to keep elementary-age kids away from the machines. Soda machines are in the teacher's lounge, where kids aren't allowed. However, separate machines offering juices and Powerade - two sugary alternatives - can be made available for kids if the school wants.

For kids in high school, Mead said, it comes down to a matter of choice. "At some point in a young person's life, they have to mature and make decisions for themselves. They can buy water out of there, too."

Family responsibility

Even Berget, a school-lunch critic, said the schools don't deserve all the blame for unhealthy options. She said parents concerned about nutrition should pack their kids a lunch. "Families can actually do a lot more for their kids. An awful lot of kids never see a fresh vegetable on their plates at home. When [school lunch] becomes the primary meal for a lot of children - it's a problem."

Because the kids, not the parents, are in school for hours at a time, teachers try to educate kids to make better food choices.

Christina Swanson, a Barton 1st- and 2nd-grade teacher, said nutritionists from the Wedge Co-op, 2105 Lyndale Ave. S., speak to classes about choices. For example, a nutritionist will ask the kids if a fruit roll-up or apple is healthier, to get them thinking about making smart selections.

Ellen Wade, a pediatric dietician at Children's Hospital, 2525 Chicago Ave., also counsels children about nutrition. She said the topic of school lunches sometimes comes up. "Generally, kids are going to eat breakfast and lunch at school," she said, so educating them about choice is huge.

Wade said parents need to be accountable and educate themselves and their kids about good food choices and empty calories - a category she said includes juice, which is just fructose and not very valuable to a healthful diet. She said "everything in moderation" is an important thing to remember.

Still, Berget said the district has a responsibility for the kids in its care. Wade, the nutritionist, suggested that parents get involved in movements to help improve school lunches. She recommended a national movement called Action for Healthy Kids (AFHK), which works to improve health and educational performance of children through nutrition and physical activities at school. The AFHK had a team for every state, including Minnesota.

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has also launched a Healthy School Lunch Campaign to lobby Congress and the USDA. They're seeking more low-fat and cholesterol-free menu items, including dairy alternatives.

Want to know more?

For information about the Minneapolis public schools lunch program, visit www.mpsfns.org.

To learn about nonprofit groups working to improve school lunches, visit www.actionforhealthykids.org.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine evaluates school lunches nationwide - though none yet in Minnesota. Their 2004 report cards are at www.pcrm.org/health/reports/

lunch2004_intro.html.