Salad days in school

I don’t remember much about school lunches back when I was in grade school and junior high, other than that the fare generally consisted of canned vegetables, some form of meat and lots of carbohydrates.

Students often complained about the monotony but did anyone really care about the nutritional value? Probably not very much.

Fast-forward… oh, never mind how many years. The quality of what’s served in the school cafeteria has moved front and center as an issue of importance to children’s health, and all too often it falls lower than it should on the nutritional yardstick.

Schools have been slow to make the switch to more healthful menus. Many of them are trying. Compared to even a decade ago, the awareness is higher. School lunch programs have more and better options for incorporating fruit, vegetables and whole grains in what they serve.

But on many measures, progress has been slow. A 2008 government analysis of school lunch quality found that although most children were getting adequate vitamins and minerals, school lunches were still too low in fruit, vegetables and fiber and too high in sodium and saturated fat.

So why aren’t school lunch programs doing better?

What isn’t always recognized, frankly, are the barriers they face. This past summer the USDA released its first-ever evaluation of the Farm to School program, which connects school lunch programs with local food producers. When a government team visited 15 school districts participating in the Farm to School program, they found that both farmers and school officials were enthusiastic about the program – but they also identified a number of practical challenges.

For one thing, smaller local producers often aren’t equipped to supply the volume required by school cafeterias. For another, fresh fruit and vegetables are seasonal, generally peaking during the summer months when school isn’t in session. Although farmers could build greenhouses to extend the availability of fresh produce, it would cost them money to do so.

School food service directors told the USDA team they were especially concerned about safe growing and handling practices. The report noted that standards aren’t always clear for growers, nor are food service directors necessarily trained to determine whether the fresh apples they’re purchasing from a local grower have been safely produced.

Schools that want to make the transition to more fresh food also face infrastructure problems. Many school kitchens, accustomed to reheating food that’s already precooked, simply aren’t set up to prepare meat or vegetables from scratch. They might not have adequate refrigerator space. Some even lack decent knives or other essential cooking equipment, nor do they have staff with the training to work with fresh food.

All of this takes money, which many school districts don’t have. In this context, it’s encouraging to see initiatives such as Let’s Move! Salad Bars 2 Schools, whose goal is to fund and provide grants that help schools install properly cooled salad bars in the cafeteria. For cash-poor districts, however, the expense of retrofitting a kitchen to serve more nutritious meals is likely to remain a significant obstacle.

Finally, there’s the political aspect to consider: Because school lunch programs are subsidized by the federal government, Congress gets a say in the standards – and last week lawmakers in Washington voted to block or delay efforts at reducing sodium and potatoes in school lunches and increasing the amount of whole grains served to school children.

None of these problems is necessarily insurmountable. But they’re not trivial either. Schools can serve better lunches but it won’t happen overnight and it’s probably safe to say that most of them will need help getting there.

Update, Nov. 30: Read more here about how students at the middle school in Willmar, Minn., are being introduced to whole grains through the federal Chefs Move to Schools program.

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