February 3, 2008
By Scott Learn and Betsy Hammond
Oregon’s school nutrition leaders are trying to put more fresh foods in students’ lunches, rely less on high-fat foods and buy from local farms and food processors.
But the main dish, they readily admit, often is made from federally subsidized commodity foods, including chicken nuggets with more fat and cholesterol than the nuggets McDonald’s serves and hamburger processed at factories as far-flung as Ohio.
That point was highlighted last week when an animal rights group released hidden-camera videos from a California plant that processes beef for school lunch programs in Oregon and 35 other states. The videos show workers tormenting aged, fallen cows and using a forklift to carry them toward slaughter.
Federal officials booted the company from the school lunch program. School nutrition directors say they’re confident that lunch food, including food from the commodity system, is as safe and high-quality as food sold in commercial markets.
But they acknowledge there are big obstacles to getting healthier foods onto the lunch tray. Roadblocks include federal nutrition requirements, built on outdated 1995 standards, and low budgets for school meals, with just 85 cents a meal set aside to buy the food and 25 cents for the milk.
"It’s a question of economics," says Nancy Becker, a dietician who heads the Oregon Nutrition Policy Alliance. "There is not adequate money to purchase super-high-quality food. Can you imagine making a high-quality meal for $1.10?"
Unlike most states, Oregon puts no money into school lunches. The cash squeeze makes it harder for food programs to nurture student demand for healthy foods and cut back on using subsidized federal commodities — primarily ground beef and poultry parts purchased in high volumes at low cost — for entrees.
"A lot of our parents want to see less industrial processed food, and I’m a dietician, I agree," said Kristy Obbink, nutrition director for Portland Public Schools. "We want to somehow get away from that system."
Oregon serves 272,000 school lunches a day, reaching half the state’s students. Sixty percent of the meals are free or reduced-price, with the federal government helping pay the tab.
Like other districts, Portland has moved toward chicken and turkey and away from beef for the "center of the plate." Last Thursday, Portland’s lunch choices included a chicken bento on a mix of brown and white rice, hardly the school lunch of old.
The district has shifted to a local supplier of pizza. It’s added more fresh fruits and vegetables. It offers yogurt and peanut butter sandwiches every day, and baked chicken has cracked the Top 10 list of entrees chosen by students.
But hamburgers and cheeseburgers remain in the district’s Top 5, and chicken nuggets and corn dogs are up there, too. Much of the food arrives precooked from a giant food processing plant in Cincinnati.
In the Beaverton school district, about 40 percent of entrees are made from beef, with hamburgers offered in elementary schools three days a week.
With the help of subsidies from the federal commodity program, hamburger and chicken are among the cheapest foods districts can use. Fish, milk, fruits and vegetables are among the most expensive.
"There is pressure to keep costs low, but that doesn’t mean we’d purchase food that we feel is unsafe," said Susan Barker, head of Beaverton’s nutrition department. "We’re always looking for the best food for the best price."
The protein pattern
Parents say they want their children to eat healthy, and many prefer that local products be part of the mix. But even parents who read labels or veer toward local produce don’t normally investigate where their child’s school meal comes from.
Jennifer Cuellar of Portland, whose first-grade son, Charlie, eats a $2 school lunch nearly every day, assumed locally grown products would be a regular part of school meals in a region that grows so much food.
"For $2 a pop, it seems like there would be some way to incorporate local produce," she said. And because her son is a picky eater, she wants every bite to pack a nutritional punch. "Whatever goes into his mouth, it had better be high quality."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a study last year comparing the nutrition students got from eating school lunch versus a lunch brought from home.
Brown baggers tended to eat turkey, ham or peanut butter sandwiches.
Students who got school lunches were more likely to drink milk, the study said, giving them more nutrients such as calcium and vitamin A. But they were also more likely to eat pizza; sandwiches with breaded chicken, fish or meat; hamburgers; hot dogs; and the dizzying array of breaded chicken products found in school cafeterias: patties, nuggets, strips, poppers and tenders.
That pattern boosted the protein that school lunch kids consumed, with students in the program getting an average of 86 percent of their daily protein requirement from the school lunch alone, well over the feds’ 33 percent target.
Along with high-fat salad dressing, it also pushed up the fat content in the lunch program. Four-fifths of schools are above the target of 30 percent or less of calories from fat.
That’s a problem, given growing obesity among children.
When the school lunch program was created after World War II, "we were really worried about whether kids were getting enough food," said Amy Lanou, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. "Now we’re feeding our kids too much food, and protein is no longer the major issue."
Despite the rash of obesity, federal rules focus on making sure school lunches contain enough calories, rather than limit them. Those high calorie counts favor processed products over fruits and vegetables, nutritionists say.
USDA officials note that there have been significant health-related additions to the commodities program, including lowering fat and sodium content, adding whole grains and giving away $50 million of fresh fruit and vegetables. Still, beef purchases make up 40 percent of the federal commodity purchases for school lunches, slightly more than is spent on fruit and vegetables combined.
Federal requirements are based on 1995 nutrition standards. Other than for schools, the government pushes its newer 2005 guidelines. Those recommend that fats come mostly from fish, nuts and vegetable oils — not cheese, beef or chicken. High fiber, whole grains and low sodium are all crucial; there’s no requirement for those items now. And they call for a variety of fruits and vegetables, with fewer starchy vegetables such as potatoes — the top vegetable in school lunch programs today.
Federal officials are working to update school lunch guidelines, but the new rules are still two years or more away, Becker said.
Meantime, Ecotrust and other groups in Oregon are trying to boost farm-to-school programs, emphasizing the economic and environmental benefits of buying local along with the health effects.
One high-profile change: The Oregon Department of Agriculture recently hired Cory Schreiber, former chef for local-food-focused Wildwood restaurant in Portland, to help connect farms with schools.
Cafeteria managers say logistics as well as price keep them from serving some healthy products. Fresh fruits and vegetables may be at the proper ripeness for only a few days — versus years of shelf life for canned fruit.
Extra-lean beef is too hard to cook when churning out burgers by the hundreds. So schools tend to stick with 12 percent- and 15 percent-fat beef, not the leaner 5 percent variety. "Extra-lean gets bad reviews. The kids complain it’s dry," said Heidi Dupuis, manager of school nutrition for the Oregon Department of Education.
Linda Van Horn, a Northwestern University professor who edits the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, said schools should combine healthier school meals and nutrition lessons to get kids eating right early on. Instead, she said, lunch menus too often undermine the government’s own advice on nutrition.
"School is where children go to learn," she said. "One of the things they should be learning is how to eat well."
Michelle Trappen of The Oregonian contributed to this report
Scott Learn: 503-294-7657; firstname.lastname@example.org
Betsy Hammond: 503-294-7623; email@example.com