The School Lunch Front: Activists and Angry Moms

May 13, 2010  

By Samantha Weinstein

In the busy cafeteria of a North Dallas high school, the associate principal stands in line behind her students and chats with the lunch ladies. As she moves her tray down the line, she picks up fried chicken, a roll and onion rings, all offered on the day’s menu.

Back in her office, while discussing school lunches and the obesity epidemic among students, she points to the irony in her own meal.

“You saw what I ate today,” she said. “Everything was beige!”

While there were other options, including an orange and a cucumber salad, many of the students chose the same unhealthy items as their principal.

Dissatisfaction with school lunch programs has been an issue for years, yet now the situation may be more serious than ever.

This generation’s children may be the first in two centuries to live shorter lives than their parents, according to a report by The New England Journal of Medicine in 2005. The report points to childhood obesity as the leading cause of a shortened lifespan.

Children are beginning to develop chronic diseases like type two diabetes, a disease that used to only affect adults.

More than 31 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program, and many children consume more than half of their daily calories at school.

“Sometimes this is all students will get to eat all day,” says the associate principal.

The names of the associate principal, the lunchroom manager, and the school were kept confidential because certain superintendents send their kids to the high school.

The National School Lunch Program is a government run organization that reimburses public schools that meet USDA-approved criteria. Students are required to choose one entrée item and at least two side dishes. They can choose up to five items total.

Nutritional guidelines for school food programs contain no limits on sugar in subsidized meals.

An 8-ounce serving of reduced-fat chocolate milk contains nearly the same amount of sugar and calories as a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola. A child consumes five extra pounds of sugar per year by choosing chocolate milk instead of white milk.

Flavored milk is offered in 97 percent of school districts, according to a 2006 report by The School Nutrition Association.

The National Dairy Council website published an article in 2007 titled, “Flavored Milk in Perspective.” The article states, “Flavored milks are as nutritious as unflavored milks,” and goes on to list the beneficial nutrients found in both white and flavored milks. The article makes no mention of the amount of sugar in flavored milks.

The National Dairy Council and the School Nutrition Association sponsored a study that found that adding flavored milk, along with appealing packaging increased milk sales in secondary schools by 15 to 22 percent.

The North Dallas high school offers plain, strawberry and chocolate milk, as well as juice drink options on their school lunch line.

The cafeteria does not offer water.

Activism among concerned parents and students is on the rise. The Internet is a tool being used to get the word out about how unhealthy school lunches are.

“It is a huge problem, and it is our children who suffer,” says a teacher who calls herself “Mrs. Q.”

Mrs. Q saw what her students were being served and decided to eat the lunch at her school every day for a year and blog about it to raise awareness. She keeps her identity and the school she works at a secret so she won’t compromise her career.

“This is my worst meal of the day, and this could be their shot at a good meal. It’s frustrating,” says Mrs. Q.

Another activist raising awareness is Tara Shedor, a senior student at Dundee Crown High School in Carpenter, Ill.

Shedor had an assignment to present an issue to her school board in November 2009. She chose to take on the school cafeteria food. Shedor requested ingredient information from Aramark, her school’s food distributor that is currently working with over 500 schools nationwide.

The Aramark website claims transparency and states, “Upon request, we share with customers all ingredients that go into our final product.

Yet, Aramark refused to disclose its ingredients to her.

“I’m a consumer,” says Shedor. “I should be able to know what I’m eating. A lot of people are not aware that food companies are not legally obligated to provide ingredient information,” says Shedor.

The assistant superintendent decided to join Shedor’s efforts, however a conflict of interest arose when the state was found to owe the district over $11 million due to poor budgeting.

Aramark offers the high school the best food contract every year.

“My school district has become dependent on Aramark,” says Shedor

Soon after, calls from the assistant superintendent ceased.

“It was not because he didn’t support me. My district is in such a financial crunch right now due to the state not providing the funds they budgeted us. This is causing us to become dependent on the cheapest available food provider because we simply can’t afford to lose them,” she says.

Shedor is not giving up any time soon.

“I can’t drop this project. I’m going to try to finish what I started,” she says.

Shedor is blogging, getting petitions from her schoolmates, and rallying for ingredient transparency so consumers can make educated decisions about what they choose to put in their bodies.

Angry parents are getting involved in lunch reform efforts as well.

Amy Kalafa, an award-winning film producer and mom saw the junk food her two daughters were consuming at school and got angry. She decided to make a documentary called “Two Angry Moms.” Kalafa teamed up with fellow angry mom, Dr. Susan Rubin, D.M.D., H.H.C. who has been “active on the school lunch front for over 10 years,” according to her biography.

The goal of the website and documentary is to provide tools and connections with the right people for those who want to work with their districts to improve school food.

Kalafa gets over a hundred e-mails a day from people across the country asking how to get started.

“The website exists to hook people up with what they need,” she says. “There is so much power in numbers.”

Kalafa and Rubin distribute their documentary for screenings across the country. Their hope is that the movie will initiate conversations and shed light on the prevalence of heavily processed, frozen meals in school cafeterias.

Keivon Gamble, a freshman CCPA major who graduated from Lincoln High School in 2009 recalls leaving for lunch every day to go to McDonald’s with his friends. “Lunch was gross,” he says. “I might have eaten it if they actually cooked the food instead of preheating it.”

The cafeteria manager of the North Dallas high school says that the frozen, prepackaged foods are easier to prepare.

She has been in the school lunch business for over 25 years and says that in the past, lunch ladies had to make the dough for rolls, clean and bread chicken by hand, and peel real potatoes.

Almost every item on the lunch menu today only has to be unboxed and preheated in large convection ovens to be ready to be served.

The manager was also proud to highlight the changes DISD has made to lower the calorie and fat content of their meals.

“We’ve taken out all of the deep fryers,” she said. “Everything is baked now, even the breaded chicken.”

A meal calculator on Nutri-Café is an interactive tool that breaks down the nutrition facts for school meal offerings in over 16 states, including DISD. The link to the calculator can be found on the “Menus/Nutrition” section of the DISD website.

According to the calculator, the crispy chicken and roll meal contains 953 calories, 53 grams of fat and 1,896 mg of sodium. A serving of onion rings contains 159 calories, 1 gram of fat and 692 mg of sodium. Chocolate milk contains 170 calories, 2 grams of fat and 260 mg of sodium.

In total, this school lunch meal comes in at 1,282 calories, 56 grams of fat and 2,848 mg of sodium.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans says to keep total fat intake between 20 to 35 percent of calories and to consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium a day for good health. This one school meal contains 44 percent calories from fat and over the days recommended allowance of sodium. Not to mention that this is an improvement on the deep-fried chicken and onion rings served in the past.

Activists who are taking the situation into their own hands are doing their best to change things and in some ways they are joining forces.

When Kalafa heard about Mrs. Q’s blog, she asked for her e-mail address to get in contact with her. Shedor has been a guest blogger on Mrs. Q’s site to speak about her own blog and mission.

“My goal in the beginning was to raise awareness,” says Mrs. Q. “I didn’t even know there was this vibrant movement going on.”

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