RULES THAT DON'T WORK
Congress made schools that participate in federally funded school meal programs develop "Wellness Policies" by the 2006 -- 2007 school year to address nutrition and physical activity. And to be sure, there are more schools stepping up efforts to offer fresh fruit, vegetables, salads, and vegetarian entrees. But there hasn't been enough oversight or enforcement, experts say, and so improvements like that have been spotty across the country. Cafeteria standbys like cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, and corn dogs still abound.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hasn't updated standards for school meals since the mid-1990s, and those standards are too easy to meet. Lunches can have no more than 30 percent of their calories from fat and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat; they must provide a third of the recommended daily allowances of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories. With no regulations for reducing sodium and trans fats or increasing whole grains, school meal standards aren't even on par with current federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, says Wootan.
A tray of reheated chicken nuggets, canned fruit cocktail, fries, and a carton of chocolate milk easily meets the current low standard, says Cooper. "Some schools write their entire menus around these cheap, easily prepared, highly processed foods," she says. "This is a huge, huge problem."
The USDA has approached the Institute of Medicine, a private organization that provides advice on health issues to government policy makers, for suggestions on updating the standards, and the institute's recommendations are expected later this year. But it will still be a long time before change is seen in cafeterias. After the institute does its initial report, there will likely be many hearings before the standards can go into effect. "It literally could be a decade," says Cooper.
In order to stay afloat financially, food service directors say they are forced to sell snacks, ranging from chips to ice cream to sports drinks. Kids love them, but their moms...not so much. Isn't a snack something that you eat between meals, not with (or, often, instead of) one?
Michele McGraw, a South Riding, VA, mom of four, wishes her children couldn't buy cookies and ice cream at lunch. Kids will be, well, kids. "I know they're going to pick chips over apples," she says. "The school lunch goes against what they're teaching them in health class." McGraw's daughter, Sami, 9, says she sometimes buys snacks along with her lunch, but some of her classmates fill up on the junk food. "I have friends who buy snacks every day," she says. "They have cookies and then they have Jell-O with whipped cream on it."
Once more, ironically, kids in upper-middle-class districts are coming up short nutritionally, since they're eating more snacks than kids in the poorer districts. Schools in higher-income districts are under more pressure to sell such snacks to balance the books, since, again, they have fewer students who qualify for the higher government reimbursements.
Because snacks make up a large part of what children are eating at many schools, the CSPI put together a 2007 report card that ranked states based on snack policies. Kentucky and Oregon earned the highest grades, A-minus -- those states limit trans fat, salt, and sugar. "Both have strong nutrition standards that apply to the whole school day," says Wootan. Two thirds of states have no snack policies in place.