Wednesday, January 18, 2006

School Lunches Getting Healthier?

When I was in school, the ladies in the cafeteria served up real food. At least, that’s the way I remember it.

There was always a green vegetable side dish, usually green beans or peas. And the main course seemed homemade. I don’t know that it really was.

Our beverage choice was, well, non-existent. We drank white milk or we drank nothing.

But we were always served a portion of buttered bread. We could select between one and four sandwich halves of it. I always opted for four. It was usually my favorite part of the meal. (I guess that might explain a lot about my current weight status.)

But sometime after I graduated high school, lunch menus changed. French fries were added, as was pizza. I never once remember being served fries for school lunch. And we didn’t have an a la carte line.

A school in northern Indiana where I taught for several years served the kids a good heaping plate of starch over starch several times a month. It was called ravioli over rice. They served it with a small side salad, but there aren’t many nutrients in lettuce.

These days, some schools are making at least a modicum of an effort to reintroduce green stuff back into their lunches. Most have either a salad bar or an option for a chef’s salad that kids can take instead of the starch du jour.

Still, there is always pizza day, pasta day, and almost every day is French fry day. When kids are given a choice, they usually opt for the fried starch with sugar.

And that brings me to the beverage choices. There’s still white milk, of course. But when given the choice of milk or flavored sugar beverages, most kids go for the sweet stuff.

It’s not even real juice, not that it would be so much better if it were. They offer fruit-flavored drinks, which are little more than sugar water with color. Real fruit juice isn’t much different, except that it does have a few vitamins.

Congress has finally stepped in to say enough is enough. Beginning in July, schools that participate in the federal free or reduced price lunch program must start offering students healthier menu choices, along with more options for physical activity.

The guidelines are well-intended, but implementing them may not help much unless local dieticians are careful.

The guidelines call for each meal to include no more than 30 percent of its calories from fat. What that might mean is that dieticians might opt to remove some of the healthy fats, such as omega-3 and monounsaturated fats and replace them with highly-refined carbohydrates. That would be a step backward.

The best school menus include a good mix of foods, including lots of green vegetables, salads, fresh fruit (not juice), lean meats, and foods containing the healthy fats. Good menus also restrict flour, starch, and sugar products and foods containing trans-fats. Beverages should be limited to white milk, chocolate milk, bottled water, and diet soft drinks.

As a teacher, it is easy for me to notice a big difference in behavior of the students immediately after lunch. They have been filled with sugary drinks and starchy foods, and it shows.

Maybe next year, if the school dieticians follow the intent of the new federal guidelines, fifth-period students might be a little more docile.

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