Are school lunches healthy enough?

Published 5:15 pm Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tomorrow morning, many students at Southgate Elementary school in Austin will start off their day with two Pop Tarts. For lunch they’ll have a “Saucy Blues Chicken Sandwich,” and a few sides.

As one could guess, these meals are not made from scratch. Breakfasts and lunches served at Austin Public Schools, and in districts and private schools across the state, are often composed mainly of processed foods.

This keeps costs down, and enables schools to receive government subsidies for providing nutritional meals at an affordable rate for all students.

Email newsletter signup

The meals served in APS’s schools meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutritional standards, with near flying colors.

However, next year, Congress will revisit the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which governs the lunch program.

For now, APS’s food service is okay by the USDA, the federal and state government, and the vast majority of students who eat the meals each day, but a new study suggests certain processed foods may be linked to an increase in children’s learning disorders.

The study, published in November’s issue of “Behavioral and Brain Functions Journal,” suggests better policies are needed to keep healthier foods in front of kids.

Nutrition and learning

Researchers documented links between synthetic food dyes, mercury consumption, and mineral deficiencies to increases in child learning and behavioral disorders in the study, “Mercury Exposure, Nutritional Deficiencies and Metabolic Disruptions May Affect Learning in Children.”

Report co-author Dr. David Wallinga, director of the Food and Health Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, told the Minnesota Newspaper Association that his research found evidence that several common processed foods and ingredients, including high fructose corn syrup, contain mercury — a known neurotoxin. 

Wallinga said the average American gets about 1 in 10 calories from high fructose corn syrup, which can contain mercury as a result of manufacturing processes.

Food companies often take issue with criticism of high fructose corn syrup, saying it is equal in nutrition to natural sugar.

The study also states that food color additives — specifically yellow 5 and yellow 6 — contain  a small amount of mercury and also have been linked to hyperactivity in children.

Wallinga recommends a diet with more healthy, whole, unprocessed foods to avoid the food dyes, mercury consumption and mineral deficiencies.

Hy-Vee dietitian Jen Haugen said there are plenty of things parents can do to feed their kid’s brains early on.

“Parents should not limit fat at all until the child is 2-years-old,” she said. 

Haugen noted that the brain is 60 percent fat, and said children who don’t get enough fat early in life can have problems later.

After age 2, fat is still very important though.

Haugen said kids need Omega-3 fatty acids — which can be found in fatty fish, walnuts, chia seeds and flax.

“There is a link between kids with Omega-3 deficiencies and Attention Deficit Disorders and Dyslexia… In the Midwest we tend not to eat a lot of seafood, but you can get Omega-3s from those other sources,” she said.

The study also says that “Omega-3 fatty acids are required for normal neural development,” but reminds readers that some types of fish are widely known to be contaminated with mercury.

Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA also notes that albacore or white tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna.

Zinc and iron deficiencies can also result in low cognitive performance, according to both Haugen and the study.

To avoid this, kids need protein. Red meat can be a good source.

Haugen said that well-balanced meals help children’s behavior and can even prevent learning problems and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder.

The complete Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy study is available in the “Behavioral and Brain Functions Journal” and online at

High fiber chewy bar, drinkable yogurt.

Wrap string cheese with slice of deli ham; wrap buttered whole grain bread around meat and cheese, 100% grape juice.

Banana, yogurt.

Spread peanut butter on toasted waffles or high fiber crackers, chocolate milk.

Hard-boiled egg, tomato juice or spicy V8 juice

High fiber bagel with Laughing Cow cheese, orange or orange juice.

Breakfast-in-a-bag: whole almonds, dried cherries or cranberries, Kashi Heart to Heart cereal, and chocolate Chex. Mix and pre-portion ahead of time in snack-size bags.

Breakfast parfait: layer strawberry yogurt, Back to Nature granola and sliced banana, or stir 2 tablespoons powdered peanut butter into vanilla yogurt, top with crushed graham crackers.

Breakfast taco: 1/4 cup reduced fat shredded cheddar cheese on a whole wheat flour tortilla. Microwave 30 seconds; roll while warm. Add salsa, if desired. 100% juice.

— Source: Jen Haugen
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is working to reform how toxic chemicals are regulated in Minnesota and nationally to help ensure a healthy food system. 

School lunches

President Obama noted earlier this year that for many children school lunches are “their most nutritious meal — sometimes their only meal — of the day,” as quoted in USA Today.

APS, along with the state, operates their meal service under the USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP) which operates under federal legislation, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946.

Basic nutrition standards have not been revamped since 1995 and next year, Congress could do so in revisiting the Child Nutrition Act, which governs the program.

As it currently stands, the lunch program is a federally-assisted meal program in public and non-profit private schools and residential child care institutions. It is meant to provide nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children.

More than 50 percent of Austin’s elementary students, and a bit less than 50 percent of middle and high school students receive free or reduced lunches.

Mary Weikam, director of food and nutrition for APS, said her task is to create lunch menus within USDA nutrition standards, while breaking even on the cost.

“Our goal is to be self-sustaining,” Weikam said, noting they get funds from lunch sales, a la carte sales and government subsidies.

Ellis and Austin High School serve the a la carte food, which is not a part of the federal program and thus not regulated. A la carte offerings at AHS include  pizza, hot dogs, cheeseburgers and sandwiches.

The new legislation might set standards for foods sold outside the lunch line.

“The nutrition standards are definitely outdated.” Weikam said of the lunch program. “It’s based on the old food pyramid.”

The USDA sets nutrition standards but decisions about what to serve and how to prepare it rests with the schools, according to the USDA.

Standards are based on 1995 Dietary Guildelines, mandating that no more than 30 percent of calories come from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. Regulations say that school lunches must provide one third of recommended dietary allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories (based on 1995 data). Total calorie intake is not mandated.

Weikam noted that much of the food served in APS is processed, frozen or canned — fresh fruit does get served a few times a week, and fresh vegetables once a week.

The meat is typically purchased pre-cooked, and Weikam said most schools would have it no other way because of food safety.

USA Today reported Wednesday that meat the government has provided the nation’s schools wouldn’t meet the quality or safety standards of many fast-food restaurants. APS purchases their food from commercial suppliers, but does receive some commodities from the government, which is often canned vegetables or fruit, Weikam said.

The government buys up farming surpluses and gives it to schools based on the number of students eligible for government assistance. 

Weikam said she does not see a way right now to move past serving processed foods in the schools. As it stands currently, 60 percent of the programs costs are wrapped up in labor.

“There’s what is ideal and what is reality,” Weikam said. “Unless they increased the reimbursements for lunch, there is no way we can afford the labor to scratch-cook.”

It is difficult to tell what is to come until the legislation lands in Congress next year.

President Obama proposed an additional $1 billion for child nutrition programs, including school lunch, in his 2010 budget.  

Brain food

Haugen said kids, and adults, should go back to the basics if they are looking for brain food.

Lunches high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains help power concentration for the rest of the day, she said.

Fiber and antioxidants provide “staying power,” she said.

“Foods rich in these will help kids focus,” Haugen said.

Haugen also said not to forget the most important meal of the day.

“Kids that eat breakfast have shown to have higher test scores,” she said.

A healthy breakfast consists of a grain, a fruit and a dairy or protein, she said.

“A good breakfast is not just having toast and going out the door.”

Haugen’s healthy, quick breakfast suggestions for kids and adults are shown in a sidebar.

Haugen also noted that having a meal at home with the whole family five times a week has been linked to good behavior and academic standing.

“This should be a huge priority,” she said. “It does not have to be supper; it can be breakfast if that is more convenient.”

Haugen continued, “You are more likely to eat healthy at home, so this gives families a chance to spend time together, and see positive results both in their health and their lives.”