Student Well-Being

What’s for Lunch? Schools Adding Healthier Menu Items

By Adrienne D. Coles — June 21, 2000 9 min read

Sophomores Paul Valenzuela and Jazzelle Sandiford are hawking strawberry and banana “smoothies” for $2.50 apiece at a snail’s pace. Though the California sun is intense, a cool breeze sails through the quad where most of Hoover High School’s 2,000 students gather to eat and socialize during lunch, and the nippy air is slowing down normally brisk sales of the concoction.

As important as the sale is—proceeds help the school pay for such items—the students are selling something more than a cool drink. Their goal is to get their peers to learn more about healthy eating at a time when studies show large numbers of America’s youths are gorging themselves.

But the advocates acknowledge that many of their classmates aren’t interested. “We can hand out fliers about nutrition, and they won’t take them,” says Ms. Sandiford. But, she adds, they will buy treats like smoothies.

Hoover is one of many schools across the country that have begun to include healthier items on their cafeteria menus. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has promoted more nutritious school lunches through a variety of measures. This spring, for example, it joined with five medical organizations to launch a program to improve student eating patterns, and it held its first taste test, allowing students to sample new food products that could make their way into lunchrooms nationwide.

Offering Variety

California has its own pilot going: Project LEAN-Food on the Run. Created by the state health department, its aim is to promote healthy eating and physical activity and to train students to become advocates for healthy eating in their schools. The Food on the Run program targets schools with large numbers of low-income, minority teenagers and is subsidized mainly through a grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thirty pilot programs are now running in the state.

San Diego’s Hoover High School joined Project LEAN, which stands for Leaders Encouraging Activity and Nutrition, four years ago. Most of its students, 95 percent, are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Under the program, Hoover students have a variety of choices: They can select from the regular school lunch meals, an a la carte menu that includes sandwiches, pizza, hamburgers, french fries, ice cream, and other snack foods. They can choose the fast food of such commercial vendors as Pizza Hut and Subway. Or they can select healthier fare, such as fruit, yogurt, bagels, packaged salads, and rice bowls.

School administrators report that some of the healthier offerings on the menu sell at a high volume alongside the fast-food items, enough so that they break even on the nutritious food.

Nora Castro, a 15-year-old who was new to Hoover this school year, likes the variety. “We didn’t have these choices at my old school,” says the freshman, who is standing at one of the many lunch carts stocked with a la carte items. After selecting a bagel and a cup of yogurt, she sits in the grass under the trees along with her friends, who munch on fries, cookies, potato chips, or pass up lunch altogether to catch up on the latest gossip.

Steve Walters, the athletic director at Hoover, believes all the food choices are necessary. “You won’t change kids’ habits unless you give them alternatives,” he says as he keeps a watchful eye on the students as they eat lunch.

Fast Food on Campus

A recent study of high school students reveals plenty of cause for concern about young people’s eating habits. For the study, presented at an American College of Cardiology conference, researchers examined the arterial walls of 249 students from three California high schools for signs of cholesterol buildup. They found that nearly 80 percent of the teenagers exceeded dietary recommendations for total or saturated fat, and 49 percent exceeded recommended cholesterol intake.

The researchers also examined ultrasound images of the coronary artery. Eleven percent of the teenagers were already showing an unhealthy thickening of the artery wall, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Meanwhile, campuses are attracting more fast foods, which tend to be high in fat and calories. A recent survey of 345 high schools here in the Golden State found that more than 95 percent of school cafeterias sold food from Taco Bell, Domino’s Pizza, or similar commercial operations.

The U.S. General Accounting Office in 1996 found an estimated 13 percent of schools offered commercial fast foods, while an estimated 20 percent offered snack foods and drinks. Secondary schools were more likely than elementary schools to offer the fast foods and snack items, the congressional watchdog agency found.

A more recent, though less extensive, survey conducted last year by the American School Food Service Association found fast foods extraordinarily popular among school districts. More than 80 percent of the 605 districts that responded said they served fast foods. Many, however, served low- fat, low-calorie items as well.

Fast food in the lunchroom directly violates USDA recommended guidelines, but those are only recommendations, said Andrew Hagelshaw. He runs the Center for Commercial Free Public Schools, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that monitors commercialism in schools

“Students are a captive audience, and most market researchers know school is the best time to reach that age group,” Mr. Hagelshaw said.

Keeping Down Costs

Providing healthy—and tasty—food to large numbers of students isn’t easy if you have to keep the price down.

“It comes down to money for teenagers,” said Joan Rupp, a regional director for Project LEAN. “If you can keep it inexpensive, the students are more likely to go for it, but you have to bring foods that will compete,” she said.

For example, even though Hoover High is able to sell the smoothies below the market price at $2.50, the drinks are more expensive than cheese pizza with a side order of french fries and fruit for $1.50.

In the California fast-food survey, many food-service directors described the pressure to keep operations financially fit by making fast foods and snacks available to students. More than 85 percent of the districts surveyed said that profits from fast-food items helped support their food-service operations or other school functions.

“Economics has made school food service complicated,” said Peggy Agron, the director of California’s Project LEAN. Many food-service directors, she said, have mixed feelings about fast foods in school cafeterias. Nevertheless, she added, “some see it as a necessary evil.”

Now, schools themselves are getting in on money-making ventures.

A growing number are marketing fast foods under a district brand name, with the foods either prepared by the school food service or purchased from a vendor. Districts can then control food production and modify it by substituting low-fat cheese for regular cheese on pizza or filling burritos with up to a half cup of low-fat beans, for example. Student advocates at Project LEAN schools test the new products, and the ones they like best often become part of the lunch menu.

“Schools have more flexibility with the school menus, and it is not difficult as long as the basic premise is that the food has to taste good and keep it inexpensive,” said Brenda Reynosa, a dietitian for the San Diego schools.

‘An Uphill Battle’

The presence of ever more “alternatives,” many of them long on fat and short on nutritional value, is what drives schools like Hoover to try to find ways of getting students to understand the link between nutrition and health. But changing the minds and tastes of teenagers is hard.

“Anything is better than the school lunch,” says Sharell Gilbert, a 15-year-old who has skipped lunch to mill around the quad and socialize.

“It is an uphill battle,” said Naomi Butler, the project coordinator for Project LEAN at Hoover. The school gives her 20 minutes three days a week to teach nutrition to 10th graders during gym class. Ms. Butler has also recruited 20 student advocates, who market and sell healthy food products to students, give nutrition talks in the community, and taste-test potential new products.

Ms. Reynosa said: “These are young adults, and they are going to be out on their own. You can’t control them. Just give them the information and allow them to make choices.”

But, said Ms. Rupp, “we don’t want to teach them something in the classroom and then have a cafeteria that doesn’t model that.”

There may be no better place to instill good nutrition habits than school, where more than half of all U.S. students eat at least one of their three major meals on weekdays.

Anji Clemens, the vice principal at Westminster High School near Los Angeles, believes schools have gotten away from teaching nutrition. She says students are ready for nutrition education. “Students put more emphasis on body image than ever, so there is much more acceptance by them to listen about eating healthy.”

Westminster is in its first year of Project LEAN-Food on the Run. The school offers several dozen a la carte items, including fruit and yogurt sundaes, salads, and sandwiches. More than 50 percent of its 2,500 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Since instituting the program, school officials estimate 50 to 100 more students each day are staying on campus to eat lunch.

As on many California school campuses, Westminster High students convene for lunch outside. Students zip through lines using their school identification cards to pay for lunch, wait in line at the snack-bar window, or walk around the campus to one of several lunch carts.

“We’re introducing foods many of our students have never seen or tasted before,” said Ruth Lackore, the nutrition-grant project manager for Project LEAN at Westminster. Ms. Lackore, who is a registered dietitian, works with the site project coordinator and 15 student advocates to find creative ways to spread a positive message about nutrition. “You can’t be stagnant or teach nutrition the same each year. You won’t reach students that way,” she said.

Creative Messages

Most U.S. schools, 87 percent, require health education throughout grades 6-12, according to the CDC. And while the topic of nutrition is usually addressed in health classes, its level of importance varies. The authors of the voluntary national health education standards issued in 1995 recommend a minimum of 50 classroom-instruction hours per school year; how many are devoted to nutrition is unknown.

“High school students are fairly bereft of nutrition education,” said Lynn Parker, the director of child-nutrition programs for the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based advocacy group. “We need to be more creative about reaching high school students with the messages they need to hear,” she said.

Listening to a presentation on food-nutrition labels certainly has student advocates at Westminster High thinking. Students are shocked to learn that there are more than 1,000 calories in one meal at McDonald’s. At least one student, 18-year old Irene Brito, vows never to eat a McDonald’s meal again.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2000 edition of Education Week as What’s for Lunch? Schools Adding Healthier Menu Items


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