School Lunches Are Struggling to Earn High Marks

In the nation’s schools, the presence of sweet, high-fat snacks in vending machines and on cafeteria lines is undercutting efforts by those institutions to improve the nutrition of U.S. youngsters. Or so conclude a pair of May 9 reports by the General Accounting Office (GAO), an investigative arm of Congress.

More schools are offering healthy meals to children, but not all children are picking them up or finding them as interesting as this girl does. GAO

Many schools have been improving their menus in recent years. Part of this reflects the schools’ concern over increasing obesity among U.S. children. But an even bigger motivator has been the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. These federal initiatives spend some $6 billion annually to reimburse states for meals that schools serve meeting Department of Agriculture nutritional standards. Most public schools now offer one or more nutritionally balanced, relatively low-fat meals per day.

Concerned about possible backsliding by states under growing budget pressures, the GAO report investigated school-meal programs in a cross-section of states: Florida, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia. The audit found that federal and state subsidies haven’t kept pace with meal-program expenses, which rose 20.6 percent from 1996 to 2000.

The report found that labor costs in school-meal programs about equal spending on food, and many schools shaved labor costs in their cafeterias by offering prepared snack foods. Cost issues also explain the presence of vending machines, which predominantly stock snack foods and soft drinks. GAO also found that, to encourage more children to eat school lunches instead of food from home, schools expanded their a la carte cafeteria offerings of snacks.

These foods don’t qualify for reimbursement under federally subsidized meal programs, so they’re exempt from federal nutritional guidelines. Indeed, the investigators found, the a la carte offerings in cafeterias usually included cookies, candy, ice cream, and french fries.

In a second report, GAO evaluated the overall nutritional value of the food that’s available in schools, which increasingly includes snack foods as students grow. The report found that 43 percent of the nation’s public elementary schools, 74 percent of middle schools, and 98 percent of high schools offer high-fat, high-sugar, high-sodium foods through vending machines, snack bars, and a la carte lines in their cafeterias.

In many cases, these less-than-ideal foods “compete directly and aggressively for the attention, dollars, and appetites of school children,” notes Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), one of the lawmakers who commissioned both new studies. Indeed, he says, this report “starkly illustrates the barriers that schools face” to getting nutritional food in front of children and encouraging them to eat it.

Mixed messages

Today, some 15 percent of U.S. children are overweight—twice as many as roughly a quarter-century ago. Though too little exercise no doubt plays a role (SN: 4/26/03, p. 270: Available to subscribers at
), so too do excess calories, especially those in foods low in protein and vitamins.

To help the nation’s youngsters slim down, Congress in the early 1990s promised new subsidies for more-nutritional school meals. The GAO reports that schools responded to this carrot.

Investigators found that the share of schools offering low-fat menus—deriving no more than about 30 percent of their calories from fat—skyrocketed between 1991 and 1998. Elementary schools offering such meals increased from 34 percent to 82 percent; high schools, from 71 to 91 percent. Although most schools also brought the cholesterol content of their menus down to within federal guidelines (100 milligrams or less), fewer than 1 percent met the sodium standard for meals (800 milligrams or less).

For instance, GAO found that between 1991 and 1998, elementary schools decreased the calories from fat in their meals on average by 11 percent, calories from saturated fat by 22 percent, cholesterol by 19 percent, and sodium by 8 percent. At the same time, the meals’ vitamin and mineral concentrations climbed substantially.

Yet only a small share of school districts had policies to encourage such healthy eating. For instance, only 19 percent required their schools to provide fruits and vegetables in a la carte lines and only 23 percent prohibited a la carte sales of sweet or high-fat foods. Moreover, as the table below shows, many more schools offer junk food than healthy snacks in their vending machines and snack bars.

When school food-service administrators were asked about such policies, they cited financial barriers to offering and promoting more nutritious foods. GAO reports that some officials said that although they could provide affordable, nutritious fare, “the challenge is in preparing healthful foods . . . that students will select and eat.” Indeed, investigators cited one Rhode Island school that decided to stop offering french fries: “Disappointed by the decision, students boycotted the entire school-lunch program. Within a week the school restored [french fries] to the menu—but as an a la carte item.”

Such nutritionally questionable offerings can be quite appealing to a school’s bottom line. One food-service director told GAO that her school takes in $600 a day from such a la carte items as pudding, toaster pastries, beef jerky, and cheese sticks—money that helps offset revenue shortfalls from sales of conventional meals. And some schools derive thousands of dollars in profits a year from vending machine sales of soft drinks.

That market panders to the uneducated palate of children. With the trend toward overweight children increasing, schools and their meal programs “are well positioned to positively influence what children eat and what they know about the importance of good nutrition,” GAO maintains. Yet it found that nutrition education tends to get shortchanged in most schools—accounting on average for no more than 13 hours of generalized instruction per year. Too often schools feel forced to devote virtually all of their classroom attention to subjects that will be covered in state-mandated standardized tests, administrators told GAO. The only way to see that nutrition is covered, they said, would be to make it part of those tests.

Moreover, GAO argued, “many schools are sending a mixed message” about the importance of nutrition when they offer junk food in cafeterias and rely on profits from it.

Nevertheless, a few schools have found ways to make nutritious meals palatable to youngsters, the investigators found. However, GAO concludes, “a more comprehensive program that addresses students’ entire environment, and one that provides multiple exposures to nutritious food and information on healthy eating—as well as promoting appropriate physical activity—appears to offer the most hope of success.”

Percent of Schools Where Kids Can Buy These

Snacks from Vending Machines, a School Store, Canteen, or Snack Bar

100 % fruit or veggie juice
soft or sports drinks or fruit drinks not 100 % juice
low-fat cookies, crackers, and pastries
high-fat cookies, crackers, and pastries
fruits or vegetables
salty snacks
chocolate candy
From report GAO-03-506, May 9, 2003
Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the editor of Science News for Students, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer.

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