July 8, 2012

California school lunches missing the mark for nutrition standards

In fall 2008, state regulators began a routine analysis of the school lunches served in Wheatland, the rural community an hour north of Sacramento.

In fall 2008, state regulators began a routine analysis of the school lunches served in Wheatland, the rural community an hour north of Sacramento.

Reviewers found typical cafeteria fare - chicken nuggets, hamburgers, spaghetti with breadsticks and a salad bar. But the nutritional levels were among the worst in the state, raising red flags for high fat content, low fiber and excessive sodium.

Federal regulations limited fat to 30 percent of lunch calories, but some Wheatland School District students received meals that drew 51 percent of their calories from fat.

Wheatland officials say they have since made improvements, but their struggles and violations are part of a larger problem. Hundreds of school districts have fed children fattening, salty and nutritionally deficient meals and face infrequent oversight.

A California Watch analysis shows 60 percent of the school lunches reviewed by the state in the past five years failed to meet at least one federal nutritional requirement.

Earlier this year, first lady Michelle Obama heralded some of the most dramatic changes to the 66-year-old school lunch program. Beginning this month, schools around the country are required to serve fruits and vegetables every day and boost whole-grain products. Starting in 2014, lower sodium levels will be required, not just recommended.

The changes have received widespread praise. Some researchers say it doesn't bode well that so many schools in the state aren't meeting current guidelines, which are less challenging.

"The overwhelming majority of schools need to make significant improvements," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We're failing our kids."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one-third of American children are overweight or obese, which places them at increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Children consume about 40 percent of their daily calories at school, so experts agree that school lunches must help address the obesity epidemic.

Congress created the National School Lunch Program in 1946 to address malnutrition in schools while dealing with agriculture surpluses. The $10.8 billion program serves about 32 million lunches a year, nearly two-thirds of which are provided free or at a reduced price to low-income students.

To receive federal funding, schools are required to meet nutritional benchmarks, including limiting fats and serving enough calories.

California Watch found most districts got high marks for serving foods with key nutrients, including calcium, vitamin A and vitamin C. But there was room for improvement:

About 30 percent of school districts exceeded the saturated fat limit.

Four out of five districts exceeded recommended sodium levels.

More than 200 of about 860 districts and charter schools reviewed failed to meet three or more nutritional standards.

State regulators are required to analyze school lunches a minimum of once every five years, but more than 100 districts and charter schools have gone at least that long without an inspection.

State officials said budget shortfalls have limited their ability to perform reviews. As for the meals, they point out that foods have improved over time.

"I would love to have all the agencies meeting the requirements, but even more of them weren't meeting them five to 10 years ago," said Suzanna Nye, the chief monitor for the state's Child Nutrition Programs. "To me, we're moving in the right direction."

Despite its problems, California is considered a leader in the nation when it comes to school lunches. State legislators banned trans fats from school cafeterias beginning in 2009, and many districts have adopted best practices, such as buying fresh produce from local farms.

But school officials say they still face many obstacles: tight budgets, minimal kitchen equipment, untrained staff, short lunch periods and picky eaters.

Increasing fresh produce and shifting to healthier preparation techniques require sinks, steamers and other equipment that schools don't have and can't afford. Many districts operate their lunch programs at a loss and say the national reimbursement rate of $2.77 per free meal served is not enough.

School officials laud recent changes that will provide an additional 6 cents per lunch for schools that meet new nutritional standards. But many say the increase won't cover the cost of required fruits and vegetables.

There also are limits to how much food service directors can change student eating habits.

The Los Angeles Unified School District overhauled its lunch menu last fall to drop what officials called "carnival food." Schools got rid of nachos, corn dogs and chicken nuggets in favor of dishes like beef jambalaya, hummus and quinoa salad.

But many students rejected the new fare. Officials have since revised dozens of recipes and say student participation has recovered.

Those who seek healthier food often struggle to get buy-in from their administration. Several directors interviewed said they wanted to invest in cooking equipment for healthier meals but couldn't get the money or space.

These obstacles often mean progress is incremental. Instead of overhauling their menus, districts might shift to whole-wheat hamburger buns or fat-free salad dressings.

Those are the types of changes taking place at the Wheatland School District. In the district's review four years ago, Food Services Director Karen Willis said her salad bar featured brownies, egg salad and tuna salad. Now, her salad bar serves only vegetables and fruits. She has switched to fat-free and low-fat options and whole-grain pastas.

But Willis said she's certain her next review will not be perfect.

"They're going to find something," said Willis, who has a staff of three to feed about 1,000 students daily. "I'm doing the best I can."

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