School Lunches: Joining Nutrition and Taste

Do you know what’s in your child’s school cafeteria? A new wave of government programs regulating school lunches will ensure a healthy lunch for all students.

See also “Sugar’s Evil Twin“.

How many calories is a 6-year-old boy supposed to eat every day? What about a 16-year-old girl? How much calcium and vitamins D and A should they have? And, come to think of it, which has more sodium: a grilled cheese sandwich or a veggie burger?

Knowing the answers to these questions—and turning them into breakfast, lunch and snack menus—is the job of school food-service directors. Those menus now have to meet a new set of federal guidelines. This year, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act goes into effect, bringing significant changes to public schools throughout the country.

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“It’s nothing short of a revolution—a welcome one—in school lunch,” says Karen Castaneda, director of nutritional services for the Lower Merion School District.

The food in public schools was already regulated. The Competitive Foods in Pennsylvania Schools program was issued by the Department of Education’s Division of Food and Nutrition for the 2007-2008 academic year, expanding on its federal predecessor, the National School Lunch Program.

Created in 1946, the NSLP is funded by Congress and updated every five years. It provides reduced-price or free lunches to children of families with lower income levels. All students can buy low-cost lunches, so long as they meet NSLP guidelines. It’s either that or pay an à la carte price—and the difference can be substantial.

At Lower Merion, an NSLP lunch includes the choice of a hot entrée, sandwich or premade salad; an eight-ounce milk; the choice of vegetable, bread or a grain; and fresh fruit or juice. The cost is just $3.40. By contrast, the à la carte price for one sandwich is $3-$3.50. NSLP discounts provide financial motivation for making healthier choices.

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Now, the NSLP has been expanded through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. “In my opinion, these are the most comprehensive changes that have occurred to school lunch in its history,” says Barbara Nissel, food-service consultant for the Radnor Township School District. “We’re at a critical moment—a tipping point—in our country’s awareness that healthy foods make healthy kids.”

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Castaneda credits the passionate, high-profile advocacy of first lady Michelle Obama and TV chef Jamie Oliver for tipping the scales. “Congress was motivated to make substantive changes to the program—and fund them,” she says.

One change boosts required amounts of whole grains in foods like bread, pretzels and pizza crusts. For the 2012-2013 year, they must be 50-percent whole grain; by 2013-2014, it’s 100 percent. Lower Merion, Radnor and Tredyffrin/Easttown school districts have already complied with the first requirement.

“Something like that is relatively easy for us to do because we bake everything in our kitchens,” says Dave Preston, food and nutritional services supervisor for Tredyffrin/Easttown School District. “What’s a challenge is meeting the requirements with food from manufacturers.”

Ubiquitous yet invisible, sodium is one of those challenges (see “Sugar’s Evil Twin“). “It’s easier, in a way, to reduce sugar intake because we can cut desserts, sodas and foods that we know have a lot of white sugar,” says Castaneda. “But sodium is in almost everything we eat, and most people haven’t yet become sodium-aware in the same way they’re sugar-aware.”

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Cutting back on sodium isn’t as easy as it sounds. “That will only reduce  flavor, and the kids won’t eat what doesn’t taste good,” says Preston. “Herbs and spices need to be added to recipes to replace the salt. Those recipes need to then be tested and approved. And they have to yield mass quantities.”

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In addition to thousands of à la carte items, Radnor Township offers about 1,300 NSLP lunches daily, and Tredyffrin/Easttown prepares 3,000. Lower Merion makes up to 4,000, plus another 500 for private schools in Montgomery County. “Private schools are exempt from the nutritional guidelines that public schools follow, but most of them adhere pretty closely to them,” Castaneda says.

Reducing sodium on such a massive scale is so significant a challenge for manufacturers that the Healthy Kids Act is giving them 10 years to meet the requirements. That’s too long for Nissel. “But it does, finally, do what we food-service directors need, which is to put collective pressure on the manufacturers,” she says. “It’s not just one school district asking for changes; it’s all of us—and it’s the law. The manufacturers have to make changes to recipes and ingredients if they want us to be able to buy their products. I think that’s great.”

Other regulations in the Healthy Kids Act have been met by area schools. Sodas have been banished, trans fat eliminated, and vending machines cleared of candy and filled only with healthy snacks. At Tredyffrin/Easttown schools, machines are serviced by a company that offers only organic foods.

The Healthy Kids Act also regulates school fundraisers. “The goal is to not use food—and certainly not candy—as a fundraiser,” Preston says. “Wrapping paper, pencils, doodads and whatnots—that’s what the kids sell.”

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In classrooms, parents are discouraged from bringing sweets to celebrate birthdays. If they do, they’re asked to also bring healthy options like fresh fruit, yogurt, cheese and crudités. While each school monitors itself, Preston and Castaneda confirm that there’s nearly universal compliance with the directive.

And what about the students?

“Some things they like, some things they don’t, and most things they don’t notice,” Preston reports. “For example, whole-grain breads in sandwiches went without much notice. But we also introduced a cookie that’s made with whole grains, reduced sugar, and shrunk in size from three ounces to one ounce. The kids don’t care for them, so we sell half as many as we used to. But that’s OK with me. There are plenty of other, healthy choices for them.”

While food-service directors welcome the changes brought by the Healthy Kids Act, they say that there is still much work to be done. The next big challenge may be their toughest: educating parents.

“It’s great that we’re doing all of this work to make the school’s food healthy, but kids can still bring all sorts of junk food to school with them,” says Preston. “And they can share that food, which defeats our purposes.”

To learn more, visit

See page 5 for “Sugar’s Evil Twin“.

Sugar’s Evil Twin

Want to lower your child’s sodium intake? Consider these numbers.


mg of sodium in a veggie burger.


mg of sodium in a cup of chicken corn chowder.


mg of sodium in six ounces of Spanish rice.


mg of sodium in eight ounces of baked ziti.


mg of sodium in a grilled cheese sandwich.


mg of sodium in a hot roast beef sandwich.

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