School Lunches – What I Learned by Checking the Data.

School lunches have been on my mind lately, especially with all the attention garnered by the USDA on their guidelines or school lunches, and the “Obama” law. Keep in mind, here, that I was, for most of my children’s life, a working parent. My meals weren’t perfect then and still aren’t now, but I do believe in balance. Oh, yeah, and full disclosure.

Talk about “False Frugality” – The government wants to educate our kids, and nurture them, and give them the cheapest meals they can possibly serve them and support big industry and their lobbyists as they do so.  I personally think that when Congress is in session, they should all get served their meals from the nearest public school.

I waited avidly in December to see what was ok’d to go to law, and then reviewed it thoroughly last week.  It’s a baby step in the right direction.  Yeah, our lawmakers caved.  In my mind, that’s corruption, pure and simple.  I would never last as a politician, I guess.

Interesting, too, that I could not find one article online or in our local paper that detailed what the changes were.  I did see some summations.  It was extremely difficult to find a copy of the law – I finally did so under a site by Michelle Obama that led to the right link from the FDA.  Here’s the link for the Healthy Child Act.  Look under Technical Assistance and Guidelines at the bottom of the page and click on it for the PDF file detailing the information.  It’s called “New Meal Patterns and Dietary Specifications.”

My kids aren’t in the age group for school any longer (my oldest grandchild will be starting school soon, within the next year or so, depending on what her parents decide) but when my children were in school, I was horrified by the lunches and for several years packed their lunches, and then made various attempts to do so at later dates. There were a lot of issues that I had to try to overcome, and eventually I failed and gave in.

  • My kids were embarrassed.
  • My kids didn’t like having cold lunches when the other kids were having chicken nuggets and pizza.
  • My kids were bored, even though I tried to innovate – I was always limited by the fact that there was no refrigeration, which caused all kinds of logistic issues: Freezing bottles of water or ice packs, etc.
  • There was no way my kids could heat up their lunches, so nothing that ever needed to be warm could be served.  I have a concern over sending foods in a thermos for that amount of time and keeping it in the “safe zone.”
  • There were attention problems with lunches: forgetting them somewhere, perhaps morning daycare, then forgetting the containers or lunch bags and boxes, causing quite a bit of money in replacing these items.
  • The kids in the school lunch lines knew how to go through and were actually supervised in getting their trays and returning them to the proper spot. There was never a teacher, lunch worker or aid reminding the kids bringing their lunches to be sure to dispose of the trash (or even pack it) and return their items to their locker.
  • There was never time allowed to get their lunches from their locker and put the containers back in their locker, and when they were smaller, their lunches were kept in the classroom. The kids went straight out from the lunchroom to the playground, so my kids would actually miss part of their time if they had to wind back through the school to the classroom and then back.

There’s a new issue now:  Some states require that any home packed lunch must meet their standards; a child in South Carolina had her lunch confiscated, was served chicken nuggets and the parents were charged, as detailed in this recent article.  Other schools have banned home packed lunches.

I do remember being horrified when I visited my son’s school when he was about 12 and smelled the stench of the insulated boxes being delivered across two cities to get there – and then realizing that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches came on white bread with the crusts cut off and were packed in cellophane wrappers!

Glancing at the school lunch menu doesn’t even begin to make parents aware of what’s going on with their kid’s food. I think what’s being served to our kids is incomprehensible to most of us.  Take a look at American Lunchrooms.  Even going to the district web site and checking the information there on nutrition, serving sizes, ingredients is only going to raise more questions to the discerning eye.

  • In our school district here in Minnesota, there is incorrect information on:
  • food being served: for instance:  Froot Loops were served on February14th, but not listed on the menu. Another day, it was chocolate milk.
  • mistakes in their charting and math for calories and the nutritional values and mistakes in adding up these figures
  • missing information on nutritional values of the items being served (even though they have “click-able” links.) It’s very difficult to find and locate nutritional labels and ingredients for all the foods that are listed, and many of the foods served to our kids have no data a parent can look at, just a summary of calories and nutrients. Sugar isn’t even one of the nutritional values listed.

Adding to the confusion, there isn’t much information on the “Offer vs. Serve” program and no information on what is or isn’t reimbursable, which drives the decisions the school makes in serving food.

  • The servings are vague – (The serving sizes will be notated under the new law for next school year.)
  • Not all items on the menu are on the District’s website so parents don’t even know what category a food is in – and believe me, this is not straight forward – yogurt, for instance, is meat.
  • Parents don’t know if a child is required to take a portion of that any particular food.
  • Even if you as a parent look at a lunch menu and assume that is what your child is getting, who knows what of the components he/she might actually be getting on his/her plate.
  • In addition, there are choices in the lunches that aren’t even listed on the menus.

There is no information I could find regarding serving size on the school menu, and incomplete information on the serving sizes on the school’s website PDF file corresponding to the menu. As a matter of fact, it’s taken a good amount of time to analyze one day, below, February 13th, 2012 – I had to pull up the menu, pull up the nutritional information, go into another area, and pull up each of the items, then go to the web and find all the missing/incomplete items and nutritional value. Numerous items were not listed in the ingredients with full nutritional information, five alone, just for this day.  I just had to make guesses at some – no information at all on beans, chocolate milk, and pineapple and incomplete information the fiestada and Trix. Chocolate milk was not even listed on the menu, I only know it was served because it’s on the nutritional page on the district’s website.

All this research is all fine and good, except we really, as parents, would have no way of knowing what options are kids are taking or how many servings of what items with the Offer vs. Serve program.

There is very little customization in the menu with regard to individualization of preferences. Our school district will make exceptions for certain groups on what is served: Lactose or gluten intolerance if provided with a Doctor’s note.

  • There are no special meals provided for vegetarians or vegans, and even with the Offer vs. Serve, vegetarian children are required to have a meat serving in order for the schools to be reimbursed.
  • There are no non-additive meals, even if a child is under a Dr.’s care for as condition such as autism, cancer, or ADD and has a recommended food list.
  • There are no menu exceptions for children with religious dietary restrictions.
  • There are no options for children who are diabetic or have prediabetes, or who have heart conditions, etc.
  • There is incomplete information on the District’s website that would help a parent evaluate the diet for their child as they do not list sugar as a part of their nutritional values.
  • Starting next year, serving size will be tied to age, but after age 9, the FDA suggests that girls eat 200 calories less than boys and the school just serves them up the same amount.

Skim milk is not reimbursable before the new law went into effect in January – our District does serve it already. The FDA does not provide this type of detailed information to parents – only to school district and cafeteria workers. I simply was able to cull the websites of various school districts in the country to find out this information. Interesting, huh?

There is, of course, no way for a parent to restrict your child to the type of milk you feel he/she should have. The school provides chocolate flavored milk to the children, even though the FDA seems to discourage the use of chocolate milk in their “My Plate” guidelines, and cite the extra calories as “empty” calories.

A lot of what our schools serve fall into the guidelines of the foods containing “empty” calories, which the FDA charts, depending on what sex/age your child is, with an allowable amount. Maybe I’ll do a little exercise later and add up all the “empty” calories in the month and average them out – if I can figure out the serving size so I have a good clue how many “empty” calories are being served. My educated guess: Your child is probably getting his/her full ration of “empty” calories at school, so they’re pretty screwed in this area if you are letting them snack after school on crap or serving more at dinner/dessert. Sorry, got a little passionate for a minute.

Let’s take a look at a child’s breakfast and lunch – February 13h, 2012 – each lunch may be accompanied by milk: skim or 1 percent, according to the menu, although the kids are getting chocolate. I thought, originally, I could just do a month as an example month, but it has taken me literally hours for just one day’s breakfast and lunch, researching and looking up information not on the school’s sites. Wow, parents! I feel badly, because concerned parents would never have the time to figure all this out and still have time to raise their kids!:

One quick note on the nutritional values of the lunch and breakfast (which you can see in detail on each of the pages)  Calories for the day for just the breakfast and lunch were 1,691, and sodium was 2,670mg.

Monthly average on the School District’s website for breakfast and Lunch in February:

  • Calories:  1723
  • Cholesterol:  166 mg
  • Sodium:  3,032 mg
  • Fiber: 13 grams
  • Protein:  84 grams
  • Carbohydrate:  246 grams
  • Total Fat:  44 grams
  • Saturated Fat:  14.93
  • Trans-Fat:  “denotes combined nutrient totals with either missing or incomplete nutrient data” according to the District Website.

Recommended daily caloric intake and sodium:  (EHow Health has some info on how many calories your child should be getting, by age.  You can find a link for the guidelines recommended by the USDA (2010, released January, 2011) here.

  • For elementary children, Calories:  4 – 8 is 1,200 to 2,000 depending on gender and activity.  For calories, the higher amount is for a very active male. Sodium is 1,200 mg.  Carbohydrates:  figure how many calories, divide by 2, then divide by 4.  At 1,200 calories a day, carbohydrate should be 150 grams, at 2,000 calories, you should have 150 grams per day.
  • For children 8 – 12, Calories:  1,600 to 2,800 depending on gender and activity.  Sodium should be around 1,500 mg.  For calories, the higher amount is for a very active male.
  • For teens 1,800 to 3,200 depending on gender and activity. Sodium should be around 1,500 mg.  For calories, the higher amount is for a very active male.

Check out Fed up with Lunch for one bloggers details of 169 days of school lunches – complete with photos.

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