Board gets food for thought about school lunch nutrition
The criticism that school lunch has taken over the years began a long time ago, basically when the whole program began in the 1940s. One of those criticisms has always been that the programs don't serve what kids will eat.
In the 1980s school lunch programs became more aggressive and started serving more "fast food" type menus. Then lunch programs began to face criticism that they were feeding students fast food instead of worrying about nutrition.
Recent criticism of the school lunch program in Carbon County has centered on this same idea; too much fast food, not enough nutrition. But school food services director Patty Rigby said it just isn't true last Wednesday during a Carbon School District Board of Education work meeting.
"At the back of the room are our lunch room managers who are the front line in this concern about nutrition in school lunch," she said. "Our lunches today are modeled after fast food because that is what the kids will eat. But the nutrition of what we serve is different from fast food."
To support her position she brought in a food broker to talk to the board about the history of the school food supply, how it has changed and what is going on today.
"The history of school lunch programs parallels the changes that have gone on in many industries and other phases of the food industry as well," said Dick Balderson, who is the owner of Basic Sales and Marketing, one of the suppliers of food to the district.
Balderson went on to explain that just like the growth of the mega-superstore grocery outlets where one can get everything under one roof, the school food service business has taken a track of large companies creating and marketing the food to schools.
"Uniformity in product was what it was all about," said Balderson. "The smaller companies were bought up by the bigger ones. I began by selling cans of fruit and vegetables to schools in 1972 and found the schools buying lots of product from us. With more and more food being sold to schools regulation by the federal government came into play."
He explained that the United States Department of Agriculture began buying up surplus crops and then were selling them cheaply to schools.
"That was a time of one line and one choice in school lunch," he said. "What's the difference today? Schools have led the battle against trans-fats and are working a lot of fiber into the menus. They have also eliminated MSG from the products and are working on getting sodium down in all meals."
Rigby also chimed in and told the board that almost everything they use now with grains in it are multigrain products.
"In most things the kids have like it and are eating it," she said. "But we still haven't gotten them used to whole grain noodles for spaghetti. Honestly, much of what we serve may look like the fast food you buy from fast food outlets, but it is nothing like it in terms of nutrition."
Rigby also said that because of the large amount of food they buy, the school district's power over the processors who supply the food is considerable.
"We were getting zero percent chocolate milk from one dairy and the kids didn't like it," she said. "When we talked with the supplier they suggested we just go to one percent, but that didn't fit the program and we refused. The dairy supplier went to work and found a way to formulate the chocolate milk so the kids once again like to drink it and it met the standards we have set for us.
Rigby pointed out that nothing in the school lunch program is now deep fried; everything is baked. That is a real difference from standard fast food fare.
"I can guarantee that the nutrition that the kids are getting from the food at school is better than many of them are getting at home," stated Balderson.
Rigby pointed out that one of the problems they have is just getting students to take the time to eat. In a number of instances kids will dump much of their lunch in a desire to get to recess.
Board member Jeff Richens wondered if the district had a program of letting the kids have lunch recess first and then having them eat might make the situation better.
Rigby suggested that the lunch managers in the room answer that question because they are on the front line of serving the lunches. Most said that they thought that kind of move wouldn't make any difference.
After the meeting Rigby said that she is trying to come up with ways to educate parents on what school lunches contain in terms of nutrition. The department has a web site which provides a great deal of information, including menus for the schools and nutrition charts.
"I just want the parents to know that school lunch is nutritious for their children and we are working to make it better all the time," she said.
That web site can be reached by going to www.carbonschools.org/ and pulling down the departments tab and checking school nutrition.