The School Food Meal Dilemma

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I wanted to respond to a good comment I received last week in regards to my new position as the School Nutrition Coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) Board President. There is so much to address regarding the school nutrition issue so I'll take it a little bit at a time. Here is the comment:

"Have you looked into the financials of switching to healthier foods instead of the processed foods one sees in school cafeterias? This would include preparation time by the cafeteria staff. I'm sure it's much easier and (cheaper) to open a can then cut up vegetables and steam them"

S/he is absolutely right that it is much easier and quicker to open a can than to cut up fresh fruits and vegetables. But time is often exactly what is lacking in school food services, and or a shortage of personnel. All last week I've been meeting with stakeholders in the district who have a vested interest in improving the nutrition environment of the school; I'd like to share some of what I've been hearing in this arena. I met with the Deputy Director of Food Services last week and asked her point blank why they don't serve more of the healthier fare like salads and sandwiches. The students seem to like them.

She did acknowledge that yes indeed the salads and the sandwiches are the first to go, but they are also the menu items that are the most time and labor intensive. Put yourself in their shoes for a second: school food service is put in a difficult position of having to feed hundreds of kids in just a 1/2 lunch hour period. From their perspective it is their total responsibility to provide a meal for every kid participating in the school lunch program. Because of time and labor constraints the cafeteria workers often have to pump put more of the easy to prepare items like the pizza, burgers, chicken nuggets etc. just to get enough meals to meet the demand. Conceivably if the cafeteria workers devoted their time to prepare only the perceived healthier items like salads and sandwiches, there wouldn't be enough meals to go around and many kids would be left without lunch. So is it better to have at least something to eat rather than nothing?

Here's something else to think about. The school cafeteria's pizza, burger, chicken nuggets, nachos and so on do not have the same nutritional profile as their fast food equivalents. The pizza is made with a lower fat cheese, some whole grain in the dough (at least this is what LAUSD is working on), the burgers have soy protein added to cut down on saturated fat and cholesterol, the chicken nuggets are lower fat as well etc.... And the portion in the school cafeteria of these items is usually smaller than what you get in a fast food restaurant thus controlling calories. School food services must adhere to government guidelines for calories, fat, saturated fat, protein and other key nutrients. In fact LAUSD has even stricter standards such as a restriction on sodium in entrees. So the point is they are "healthier" versions of these fast food items.

On the other hand, are we perpetuating the culture of fast food by continuing to serve these items that are perceived as less healthy? It's such a tough issue. Will the kids eat and buy the healthy stuff if there is enough time and personnel to prepare it? How does school food service compete with all the fast food choices are kids have in their own communities?

From the outside it seems like such a no-brainer to make changes but when you start delving into every aspect of what it takes to feed all these children, you (or me I guess) realize that there are many many pieces to this pie that need addressing. It's so very complicated and I've just started...

I so appreciate your comments and hope to address each and every one of them. Thanx for reading and participating!

Have a fruit and veggie filled day!
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About the Author

Registered dietitian Andrea N. Giancoli is a nutrition advocate, consultant and educator.

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