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Agriculture Dept. Criticizes Content Of School Meals

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WASHINGTON--In a markedly self-critical study released last week, the Agriculture Department concludes that meals served in the federally subsidized school-lunch program are much too high in fat and salt.

While the study supports arguments that nutrition advocates have been making for years, observers said it is symbolic of a new attitude at the department and could be a harbinger of major changes in the program.

The study, which looked at meals offered to 3,350 students at 575 schools, was released by Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy at a news conference that included lunch at the Brent Elementary School here.

"We can't continue to deep-fry our children's health,'' Mr. Espy said.

Comparing figures from the survey of nutritional content with the federal "Dietary Guidelines for Americans'' and the National Research Council's "Diet and Health'' recommendations, researchers found that about 38 percent of the calories in school lunches came from fat, compared with the recommended figure of less than 30 percent. Fifteen percent of calories came from saturated fat, while the guidelines call for less than 10 percent.

Only 1 percent of the schools studied served lunches conforming with the fat guidelines, and only one school in the entire study provided lunches in which the amount of calories coming from saturated fat averaged less than 10 percent.

The average amount of sodium in school lunches was found to be about 1,500 milligrams, almost twice the suggested 800-milligram maximum.

In a more positive finding, the report says that most schools met the N.R.C. recommendation that dietary cholesterol not exceed 300 milligrams per day. The average amount of cholesterol in school meals was found to be 88 milligrams.

With a few exceptions, the meals also provided over a third of the recommended daily allowances by age and sex for protein, calories, vitamins, and minerals.

School breakfasts were rated more highly than lunches. On average, 31 percent of their calories came from fat, just one percentage point over the recommended level. Breakfasts exceeded the guidelines for saturated fat and sodium, but not by the large margins seen in the lunch data.

'Are They Going To Eat It?'

While consumer advocates lauded the report for calling attention to the unhealthy aspects of school meals, the American School Food Service Association defended its members.

In a statement, the group argued that the content of school meals, while not ideal, reflects the average American diet.

In interviews, several food-service directors for school districts noted that schools have made efforts to cut down on the fat, sodium, and sugar content of cafeteria meals, such as introducing leaner beef and ground turkey into their hamburgers and offering salads and fresh fruit.

"We don't have any fryers in the schools at all,'' said Josephine J. Riso, the director of food services for the Buffalo, N.Y., public schools.

Even Lynn Parker, a school-lunch critic who is the director of child-nutrition programs and nutrition policy for the Food Research and Action Center, noted that 44 percent of schools surveyed by the Agriculture Department offered low-fat lunch options.

This is "an enormous shift from 10 to 15 years ago,'' she said.

Food-service representatives also pointed out that students often turn up their noses at low-fat meals.

"Sure, you can put tofu and bean sprouts on a tray,'' Delois McDuffie, the director of food services for the Sacramento, Calif., schools, said. "But are they going to eat it?''

Chuck Sarles, the general manager of food services for the Springfield, Mo., district, noted another obstacle to improving nutritional quality.

He said the increased availability of poultry from the Agriculture Department's commodities program, which provides certain foods to schools at reduced prices, had helped his schools cut down on fat. But the program continues to supply "a considerable amount'' of high-fat foods like beef, butter, and cheese, he said.

The lunch program was conceived as an outlet for excess commodities, and efforts to improve the healthfulness of the commodities have often been blocked by lawmakers and officials sympathetic to farm interests.

But nutrition advocates expressed hope that the Clinton Administration will adopt a different attitude.

A Change in Washington?

Ellen Haas, now the assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer services, was a critic of the lunch program as a consumer advocate at Public Voice for Food and Health Policy.

The department has already begun a series of public hearings on the school-lunch program.

Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based, nonprofit consumer-advocacy group, said this change in attitude is also evident in the department's treatment of the school-nutrition data. Last year, he said, the agency did not publicize a similar study.

"They were hiding it,'' said Mr. Jacobson. "Now they're using it as a platform to introduce change.''

"In the coming days,'' said Ms. Parker of FRAC, "we'll see if that shift [in attitude] is complete.''

Over the past decade, she said, "the emphasis in has been on accountability and paperwork.''

Rather than working to reduce fat or to train personnel, Ms. Parker said, federal officials had focused their efforts on making sure that children who were not eligible for federal subsidies were not getting a free lunch.

An aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition and Investigations, predicted that when the lunch program comes up for reauthorization next year, lawmakers are likely to consider legislative changes to encourage increased availability of fruits and vegetables and the use of more low-fat products and to make nutrition education a higher priority.

One area where the tide may be turning is the federal school-milk program, which now requires schools to serve both whole milk and skim milk. Efforts to allow them to replace whole milk with low-fat milk have been repeatedly rebuffed by lawmakers from dairy states.

With official "recognition that these [fat-content] guidelines have a pretty good grounding in science,'' the aide said, it may be easier to modify the milk rules.

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