April 8, 2006 | Episode 14

Are your kids getting the nutrition they need?
Are your kids getting the nutrition they need?
Real Simple Television Productions Inc.


What Are Your Kids Eating, Exactly?

Six questions to ask about your school lunch program

Question 1: What’s on the menu?

“Talk to your cafeteria manager to find out what’s on the menu,” says Aviva Goldfarb, author of The Six o’ Clock Scramble: Quick, Healthy, and Delicious Dinner Recipes for Busy Families and founder of www.thescramble.com. Also ask about the produce: Is it local, organic? Menu diversity is important, too, says Julia Graham Lear, director of the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools at George Washington University. “If a school district has a lot of Latin American students, for example, they will want to see a few things on the menu that look like home,” she explains. “It’s important to find out how the school is addressing that.” Parents who want to ensure the healthfulness and diversity of school lunches should contact their school boards to join the menu-planning committee for their district.

Question 2: What’s in the food?

Nutritional information of the meals should be readily available from the school. Goldfarb recommends asking what kind of sweeteners the school is using. If it is using high-calorie corn syrup in fruit cocktail or fruit desserts, ask if it can sweeten these dishes with healthier fresh fruit juices instead. Breads should be made from whole grains to increase fiber content, processed foods should be limited to reduce sodium, and foods that contain sodium nitrates and trans-fats should be eliminated.

Question 3: How long does lunch last?

“This is a different question from ‘How long is the lunch period?’” says Lear. “This is asking, ‘How long do the kids have to eat?’ Kids can spend 10 to 15 minutes waiting on line — even kids who are just buying milk.” Parents can request a separate line just for purchasing milk or drinks to solve that problem, Goldfarb adds, or suggest a longer lunch period, so kids can spend more time eating than waiting. “I don’t think 30 minutes does the job,” says Lear. Goldfarb agrees and has even asked her school board for an extra 10 minutes.

Question 4: How can I get involved?

The best way to get involved, says Goldfarb, is to have a lunch with your kids at school. “See what they are eating — and not eating. See how long it takes to get through the line. See for yourself if the food is good or not,” says Goldfarb. “Sometimes something that sounds really good on paper turns out to be quite gross — very salty or very processed.” Touring the school kitchen or central manufacturing facility for the lunches is another good way to find answers.

If parents are not happy with what they are finding, they can also join the district’s wellness policy team. “Not a lot of people are aware that each local education agency or school district that participates in the National School Lunch Program is required to develop a local wellness policy, which has been formed in response to an epidemic of childhood obesity,” says Susan Acker, spokesperson for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. The law requires that the district, at a minimum, set goals for nutrition education and physical activity and nutrition guidelines for all food and beverages available during the school day. The district is required to do this with a team of community members — parents, students, representatives of the local food-service authority, the school board, school administrators, and members of the general public. Acker advises that parents ask the district superintendent for a copy of the local policy and how they are adopting it. “And you don’t have to be a parent to get involved,” she says. “Anyone can get involved.” Parents can find a clearinghouse of information on the policy legislation, along with sample local policies and reference materials, at the USDA’s Team Nutrition website teamnutrition.usda.gov/Healthy/wellnesspolicy.html.

Question 5: How much food is thrown away?

Lear suggests asking how much food — and what kind — is thrown away daily. “You want to make sure that there is some organized effort to assess what kids are eating. If the healthy meals are all ending up in a trash can, it doesn’t matter what’s being served,” she says. Simply asking the menu-planning committee to stop serving those meals will reduce wasted lunches.

Question 6: Where else is food sold in the school?

Are there vending machines full of sugary soda? School stores selling candy? There’s a good chance there are, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose research shows that 43 percent of elementary schools, 73.9 percent of junior high schools, and 98.2 percent of high schools have vending machines, a canteen, or a snack bar where kids can buy candy, a statistic that Lear finds shocking. “Suggest healthier snack alternatives to the school board,” says Lear, such as granola bars, packs of cheese and crackers, and pretzels.

Useful Links

The USDA’s Team Nutrition site offers a treasure trove of resources on how to improve your school nutrition environment and school-nutrition success stories: teamnutrition.usda.gov/library.html.

The Center for Children’s Health and Health Care in Schools includes a parents resource center: www.healthinschools.org.

The School Nutrition Association provides news, research, and on-line communities relating to school nutrition: www.asfsa.org.

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