News & Events
The Wall Street Journal
By LAURA BIRD
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
It's 12 noon. Do you know what your child's lunch is?
If they attend public school, there's a good chance the answer is pizza -- or chicken nuggets, or a cheeseburger. In a nation of foodies, school lunch generally remains a bastion of processed, full-fat meat and cheese. On some days, school lunch is no healthier than what is sold at a fast-food chain -- and in some cases, that's exactly what it is.
A WEIGHTY ISSUE
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The school lunchroom has long been a battleground for food activists and parents concerned about the nutritional quality of their children's midday meal. Now, with rising unease over the fast-growing rates of obesity, criticism is escalating from legislators, researchers and consumer groups who say fast-food, vending machines and the troubled economics of school cafeterias are culprits in the alarming growth of children's waistlines. Some 14% of teenagers were overweight in 1999, almost triple the rate of the late 1970s, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among children ages six to 11, 13% were overweight, almost double the rate two decades ago.
Most public schools offer students a government-subsidized lunch that is supposed to adhere to certain fat, caloric and nutritional standards. But 20% of schools also sell branded fast foods such as Pizza Hut and Little Caesars pizza or McDonald's burgers and fries, according to a 2000 study of school health policies and programs by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vending machines are present in 43% of elementary schools, 74% of middle schools and nearly all of high schools. The machines aren't supposed to operate in lunchrooms during lunch hours, but in practice they often do. The CDC study found beverage vending machines operated during lunch in 68% of schools that had them.
Calling obesity a public-health crisis as urgent as smoking, legislators are preparing to take a hard look at fast food, vending machines and the school-lunch program when it comes up for reauthorization in Congress next year. In many districts, parents are one step ahead and have organized to try and kick brands out.
"I don't want my kids to see a Pepsi sign at school. It encourages them to eat junk food," says Saralyn Myers, a founder of the Healthy Lunch Committee in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., who is opposing a proposal to let a Pepsi bottling company install and manage vending machines in schools. "We are so careful to make our kids good human beings, and then we are so lackadaisical about how we feed them."
Kelly Brownell, professor of psychology at Yale University and director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, is also calling for stricter oversight of schools to remove fast food and unregulated snacks. "It's pretty clear when kids are offered hamburgers, french fries and pizza, they will eat those foods whether or not healthy foods are available," he says. "When you take a school with soft-drink machines, and fast-food franchises in the cafeteria, it's starting to look like a 7-Eleven with books."
But there's compelling reason school districts keep cafeterias stocked with brand name fast-foods and other tempting snack fare -- money. Most schools at best break even on the federally subsidized hot lunches they serve. Yet on premium-priced a la carte foods such as chicken fingers or a ham sandwich, they can earn profit margins of 50% or more, says Mitch Johns, president of Food Service Solutions Inc., an Altoona, Pa., software company.
Schools generally aim for a two-to-one mark-up when selling single-serve packaged foods such as potato chips and soft drinks. As for branded foods, Mr. Johns says he isn't privy to the terms a vendor such as Pizza Hut or McDonald's makes with its school customers -- but such items are certainly more profitable than federally reimbursed fare.
Congress created the National School Lunch Program in 1946 to fight childhood malnutrition by providing low-cost and free lunches to U.S. school children. The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the program, subsidizing participating schools with cash reimbursements and free food commodities and overseeing the nutritional content of meals. U.S. schools serve more than 27 million lunches each day under the federal program.
Yet serving up a healthy, low-fat lunch -- even with the free food from USDA -- is no easy task given the paltry reimbursements. The federal meal subsidies -- $2.09 for meals served free to qualifying students, $1.69 for reduced-price meals and 20 cents for the ones sold at full price -- "aren't a lot of money to create a whole meal for a teenage boy, if you think about the price of apples or grapes," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington.
A 1999 Agriculture Department survey found only 20% of the lunches served in schools stayed within the required limits on fat set by the USDA, and only 15% stayed within saturated-fat limits. by the USDA and only 15% met the saturated-fat standard. Lean meat, low-fat cheese and fresh produce all often cost more than full-fat and processed foods.
Given the economic realities for schools and kids' preferences, vending-machine snacks and fast food eventually "will kill the lunch program" if they aren't reined in, says Agnes Molnar director of the child-nutrition unit at the Community Food Resource Center, a nonprofit advocacy group in New York. "That is the way it is heading: The more these foods are there, the more children purchase, and the fatter they get."
It all comes down to basic supply and demand. As long as McDonald's and Pizza Hut are available in schools, school food-service managers say they have no choice but to offer cheeseburgers, french fries and pizza themselves.
"Adults would like to believe if you just had a wonderful fresh fettucine dish, the kids would flood to the cafeteria," says Judi Jaquez, division head for student nutrition for Santa Fe public schools and a registered dietitian. Although so far, she has been able to hold the line on fast-food brands, her program served 170,000 servings of frozen pizza to elementary school students last year.
"Get real," she says. "The kids will eat pizza, even pizza that is frozen, day in and day out."
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