Failing The Nutrition Test Across The Country, School Lunchrooms Struggle To Earn High Marks

In the nation’s schools, the presence of sweet, high-fat snacks in vending machines and on cafeteria lines is undercutting efforts by those institutions to improve the nutrition of U.S. youngsters. Or so conclude a pair of recent reports by the General Accounting Office (GAO), an investigative arm of Congress.

Many schools have been improving their menus in recent years. Part of this reflects the schools’ concern over increasing obesity among U.S. children. But an even bigger motivator has been the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. These federal initiatives spend some $6 billion annually to reimburse states for meals served in schools that meet Department of Agriculture nutritional standards. Most public schools now offer one or more nutritionally balanced, relatively low-fat meals per day.


Concerned about possible backsliding by states under growing budget pressures, the GAO report investigated school-meal programs in a cross-section of states, including Florida, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia. The audit found that federal and state subsidies have not kept pace with meal-program expenses, which rose 20.6{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} from 1996 to 2000.

Garbage In

The report found that labor costs in school-meal programs about equal spending on food, and many schools shave labor costs in their cafeterias by offering prepared snack foods. Cost issues also explain the presence of vending machines, which predominantly stock snack foods and soft drinks.

The GAO also found that, to encourage more children to eat school lunches instead of food from home, schools expanded their a-la-carte cafeteria offerings of snacks.

These foods don’t qualify for reimbursement under federally subsidized meal programs, so they are exempt from federal nutritional guidelines. Indeed, the investigators found, the a-la-carte offerings in cafeterias usually include cookies, candy, ice cream, and french fries.

In a second report, the GAO evaluated the overall nutritional value of the food that is available in schools, which increasingly includes snack foods as students grow. The report found that 43{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of the nation’s public elementary schools, 74{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of middle schools, and 98{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of high schools offer high-fat, high-sugar, high-sodium foods through vending machines, snack bars, and a-la-carte lines in their cafeterias.

Mixed Messages

Today, some 15{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of U.S. children are overweight — twice as many as roughly a quarter-century ago. Though too little exercise no doubt plays a role, so too do excess calories, especially those in foods low in protein and vitamins. To help the nation’s youngsters slim down, Congress in the early 1990s promised new subsidies for more nutritional school meals.

The GAO reported that schools responded to this carrot. Investigators found that the share of schools offering low-fat menus — those deriving no more than about 30{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of their calories from fat — skyrocketed between 1991 and 1998. Elementary schools offering such meals increased from 34{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} to 82{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}; in high schools, the jump was from 71{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} to 91{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}. Although most schools also brought the cholesterol content of their menus down to within federal guidelines (100 milligrams or less), however, fewer than 1{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} met the sodium standard for meals (800 milligrams or less).

The GAO found that, between 1991 and 1998, elementary schools decreased the calories from fat in their meals on average by 11{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, calories from saturated fat by 22{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, cholesterol by 19{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, and sodium by 8{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}. At the same time, the meals’ vitamin and mineral concentrations climbed substantially.

Yet only a small share of school districts have policies to encourage such healthy eating. For instance, only 19{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} require their schools to provide fruits and vegetables in a-la-carte lines, and only 23{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} prohibit a-la-carte sales of sweet or high-fat foods. Moreover, as the table to the right shows, many more schools offer junk food than healthy snacks in their vending machines and snack bars.

When school food-service administrators were asked about such policies, they cited financial barriers to offering more nutritious foods. According to the GAO, some officials said that, although they could provide affordable, nutritious fare, “the challenge is in preparing healthful foods … that students will select and eat.”

Indeed, investigators cited one Rhode Island school that decided to stop offering french fries. But students then boycotted the entire school-lunch program. Within a week, the school restored french fries to the menu as an a-la-carte item.

Money Matters

Such nutritionally questionable offerings can be quite appealing to a school’s bottom line. One food-service director told the GAO that her school takes in $600 a day from such a-la-carte items as pudding, toaster pastries, beef jerky, and cheese sticks — money that helps offset revenue shortfalls from sales of conventional meals. And some schools derive thousands of dollars in profits per year from vending machine sales of soft drinks.

That market panders to the uneducated palate of children. With the trend toward overweight children increasing, schools and their meal programs “are well-positioned to positively influence what children eat and what they know about the importance of good nutrition,” the GAO maintains.

Yet, it found that nutrition education tends to get shortchanged in most schools — accounting on average for no more than 13 hours of instruction per year. Too often schools feel forced to devote virtually all of their classroom attention to subjects that will be covered in state-mandated standardized tests, administrators say. The only way to see that nutrition is covered, they said, would be to make it part of those tests.

Moreover, the GAO argued, “many schools are sending a mixed message” about the importance of nutrition when they offer junk food in cafeterias and rely on profits from it.

Nevertheless, a few schools have found ways to make nutritious meals palatable to youngsters, the investigators found. However, the GAO concluded, “a more comprehensive program that addresses students’ entire environment, and one that provides multiple exposures to nutritious food and information on healthy eating — as well as promoting appropriate physical activity — appears to offer the most hope of success.”

This article was reprinted from Science News Online