Public-school lunch programs have come a long way from mystery meat and green gelatin squares. In the 21st century, students have more choices, and fresh fruits and vegetables are de rigueur.
Even so, running school cafeterias has become a balancing act between increasing healthy options that appeal to picky young taste buds and decreasing costs and waste.
"The hardest part of my job is making ends meet economically while still serving the vegetables and fruits that students need to be healthy," says Beth Palien, child nutrition director for Asheville City Schools.
Cheese fries out, whole wheat in
Our public-school cafeterias are highly regulated by the Department of Agriculture, and there's not a lot of nutritional wiggle room within those requirements. For example, the government now requires each meal to contain, at minimum, two ounces of protein, two vegetable or fruit servings (or both equal to 3/4 cup), and eight ounces of milk — plus eight servings per week of grains.
Changes on the local level have been straightforward and dramatic. Food fryers were removed from ACS cafeterias a few years back, and all of the milk, even chocolate milk, is now skim or one percent. "I don't look a whole lot at calories anymore, but I look closely at fat content, and I'm starting to look hard at sodium content," Palien says.
For example, the pizza has low-fat cheese and whole-grain crust. Asheville High used to contract with Papa John's Pizza, but the school pie was different from the pizza-maker's regular recipes. It had to comply with the government's nutritional standards. "The kids don't even notice the difference," Palien says.
She also credits parents and students with being more aware of nutrition. No one complained when she changed all the milk to the low-fat variety — although her predecessor in the job wasn't too popular with students after she removed cheese fries from Asheville High's menu.
No money where their mouth is
Despite regulating the nutritional content of every morsel that passes kids' lips, the federal government doesn't provide enough funding to cover the cost of each meal. For example, the USDA reimburses ACS' Child Nutrition Services $2.70 for a meal that costs the cafeteria $3.34. And this is for students who qualify for free lunches. The only state aid provided to area schools comes via North Carolina's Kindergarten Breakfast program, which offers free breakfast to all kindergartners.
While Child Nutrition Services operates under the auspices of ACS, they pay their own way. Revenue from the government's reimbursement programs, paying students, paying adults (teachers and staff), and a la carte sales must cover the costs of food, supplies, salaries, benefits, taxes, equipment, et al.
Historically, it hasn't been enough. ACS supplements the program with local funding. Last year, Child Nutrition Services received $167,275 in local funds. This year, they're budgeted to receive $100,000. So unless they make extra revenue this year, cuts are in the program's future.
"If it wasn't for Asheville City Schools giving us extra funding, we'd have to drastically cut staff and meal options," says Palien. "Thinking about it keeps me up at night."
Currently whole apples are provided instead of apples cut in half, and cafeterias typically offer a cup of vegetables instead of the required 3/4 cup. But that may change if cuts are necessary.
"Whole grains and non-processed foods are more expensive," points out Terri March, coordinator of Healthy Buncombe, a nonprofit that promotes good nutrition and physical activity for kids and adults. She adds that, while area schools do purchase some local produce, it also costs more than similar items from the government's commodity-foods providers.
Some have choices, some don't
Some kids love the school food.
"I just tried all the lunches, and I really like the hot dogs. I like all the fruit. There are these oval-shaped mini watermelons in the fruit cocktail that are really good," says James Van Cleve, first-grader at Claxton Elementary.
Naturally, there's always the option to pack lunch from home – except when there's not enough food at home. Many students depend on schools for the majority of their daily nutrients, benefiting from free and reduced-rate food programs. Yet these programs are not completely covered in cost by the government. And significant amounts of food are wasted daily.
"Nutritionists have to assess what kids will eat versus what they'll throw in the trash," says March. "You can serve all the baby carrots you want, but if they go into the trash, that's like [tossing away] gold."
Still, the nutritionists keep trying. A USDA-grant sponsored program at Vance and Hall Fletcher Elementary Schools provides a fresh fruit and vegetable cart including less-traditional options like kiwi.
"We have two registered dieticians [Palien and Lynette Vaughn-Hensley, child nutrition director with Buncombe County Schools] who are creative and understand nutrition, but they're strapped by running a failing business," according to March. "Our schools are doing the best they can with the resources they have. [But] they need more resources, such as parental resources. We need a call to action for parents."
Burning off all those regulated calories
What's the best part of the school day, after lunch break? "Recess!" exclaims Maris English, second grader at Isaac Dickson Elementary. "I get to run around and play with my friends."
Many school-age kids agree with her. They love recess. Plus, it's necessary. The North Carolina State Board of Education requires that K-8 students get a minimum of 30 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. But are our students getting their daily required exercise?
"There's a big difference between P.E. [class] and physical activity," says Penny Lewis, physical-education instructor at Isaac Dickson Elementary. "I think many students take advantage of recess to be active, but not all. On days when recess is canceled due to bad weather, no one is getting any physical activity."
The physical-activity allotment can include physical education, but most Buncombe County and Asheville City Schools only offer structured P.E. classes once or twice a week. The only requirement for high-school students is one semester of ninth-grade physical education.
So, the burden of making sure students get their 30 minutes of daily exercise falls on the shoulders of individual classroom teachers, and its enforcement is up to administrators at each school. This comes on top of state and district directives that try to cram more instructional time into each school day than there are minutes in that day.
And, unlike math skills, levels of vigorous exercise can be difficult to measure.
One helpful quantifier is BMI (Body Mass Index) — a rough indicator of a person's percentage of body fat based on age and gender. And our kids' BMIs reflect some big problems. More than 19 percent of North Carolina's young people are obese, compared with about 15 percent nationally. Our state currently ranks as the fifth most obese in the nation for kids aged 10-17.
In Buncombe County, more than 34 percent of elementary-school kids are obese or overweight, according to the local School Health Advisory Council (all numbers come from data collected in 2008). When the Board of Education instituted the physical-activity requirement, they also directed school districts to set up School Health Advisory Councils to monitor it.
Spearheaded by Healthy Buncombe's Terri March, SHAC has collected the BMI of every elementary student in the Asheville City and Buncombe County schools for five years. The most recent numbers show that more than 18 percent of these kids are defined as obese, while almost 16 percent are classified as overweight.
Research suggests that schools can play an important role in addressing childhood obesity through both their nutrition programs and physical activity and education requirements. Teachers are trained in "energizers" — short activities kids can do in classrooms, such as jogging in place, according to Debbie Bryant, health and physical-education coordinator for Buncombe County Schools. The daily 30 minutes can be broken up into 10-minute increments.
There's also a N.C. General Assembly bill that would require daily physical education classes in state elementary schools. However, the bill's been tabled until next session, and recent cuts to the state's education funding could make finding resources for the proposed change difficult.
"Diseases once only seen in adults, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, are becoming more prevalent in children. We need P.E. five days a week. It would not only benefit our children physically, but academically," says Lewis.
Researchers report that, due to obesity rates, kids today may be the first generation in history whose life expectancies are shorter than their parents. So getting kids moving can extend their lives.
Still, "schools can only do so much. We try to work with families and with the community," says Bryant. "It takes time. We didn't just become fat overnight."
[Anne Fitten Glenn is an Asheville-based freelance writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.]