The inside scoop on school meals

Feb. 13, 2005, midnight | 19 years, 5 months ago

Lunchroom woes

Editorial written by the Editorial Board of Silver Chips Print

After the lunch bell rings, the cafeteria is bombarded with a mob of hungry
students. One by one, they emerge from the lunch line, carrying with them a
variety of foods: fries, nachos dripping with processed cheese, fries, baked potatoes with more processed cheese, fries...

In its crusade against obesity, the Board of Education (BOE) has already targeted unhealthy sodas and vending machine snacks. Yet every day, this
epidemic of unhealthy foods in the lunchroom is going by unnoticed. According to MSNBC News, the U.S. government is currently revising the food pyramid for the first time since it was created 12 years ago. The new guidelines recommend up to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables every day, as opposed to the previously suggested nine servings. Blair meals, which include few vegetables and no fruit, didn't even meet the standards for the original food pyramid and is now falling way behind the updated criteria for healthy eating.

Expecting healthy meals from an institution dedicated to promoting health and safety for its students is a reasonable request; however, an informal Silver Chips survey of 100 students on Jan. 3 reveals that 90 percent of Blazers do not think that Blair's meals meet their healthy, nutritional needs.

County-wide, 23.26 percent of students rely on the cafeterias for their free and reduced price meals, says MCPS Division of Food and Nutrition Services Director Kathy Lazor. In addition to these students, thousands more who do not rely on school meals still purchase the food regularly. Because of the large demand for affordable school food, the real danger concerning school meals is that students have gotten used to the unhealthy selection of meals and no longer expect them to meet any nutritional standards. "I know the food is bad for me," says sophomore Andrea Arias as she helps herself to another french fry, "but it tastes okay, and there's really nothing else to eat."

The epidemic

Targeting the quality and nutritional value of school meals should be a top priority for the BOE, given how the type of food consumed by students affects their behavior and academic performance. An article from states that "artificial flavors, colors and preservatives cause hyperactivity" and criminal tendencies among children. However, the scapegoated sodas are not the only products impairing the ability of students to concentrate; fries, pizza and soup share the blame as well.

The lack of healthy meals in today's high schools, coupled with the students' low standards for food nutrition, comes at a critical time, when nearly 16 percent of America's teens are "obese," according to the American Obesity Association, and an additional 15 percent have been classified as overweight.

Cafeteria cook Nargis Rehman claims that out of the approximately 3,000 students who rely on school lunches every day, over 75 percent of them order only fries, and many order two helpings.

While the students do have the responsibility to select a healthy meal (and most choose to pass over the very few apples and bananas offered), they're not given many options. Picking out something healthy is difficult when the choices only include fries, nachos, hamburgers, greasy egg rolls and what appear to be chicken patties, delightfully pink in the center.

Umm... is this meat?

Sadly, the good old days when cooks actually cooked school meals are long
gone. Today, all our food (including the meat) is precooked, frozen, shipped to Blair in large boxes, kept in enormous freezers, defrosted and plopped in a gooey, globular mass onto lunch trays. According to Rehman, the only food actually cooked in the cafeteria is the fries.

The scary thing about cafeteria food - and all "fast food-like" meals for that matter - is what students are actually putting into their bodies. All inorganic food, whether or not it's approved by the USDA, is full of chemical additives that are used to make them taste, look or smell better, according to the Carbondale Center for Macrobiotic Studies (CCMS). Most processed meats, chips, Chinese food, fast food, salad dressings and Blair's own soup bases contain the additive Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), a chemical that can cause neurons in the brain to become overstimulated and die. MSG can also cause reactions such as migraines, asthma, insomnia, mood swings and cardiac irregularities. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the USDA and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continue to approve public consumption of MSG-laden meals, despite numerous studies that have shown "adverse reactions" in people who've eaten it.

Also added to American foods - and therefore school meat and dairy products - are chemicals and growth hormones designed to increase the rate of growth in beef cattle and the amount of milk produced by milk cows. According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition, most cattle in the U.S. are implanted with synthetic prior to slaughter that have been proven to raise the level of hormones in humans and lead to serious health problems such as cancer. The school meals may be planned to meet USDA nutritional guidelines, but the ingredients in the cheese, soups, pizza, nachos, burgers, chicken patties, fries and even the "healthy" salad dressings contain hidden chemical dangers that threaten student health.

The road to nutrition

Improving the quality of school meals is not only beneficial for the students' health; it's economically feasible as well. The Appleton, Wisconsin Alternative High School, working with the Natural Ovens Bakery, has
implemented a school meal system that meets all USDA requirements and is devoid of additives, dyes, artificial preservatives and saturated fats, according to the "Supersize Me" web site. A sample school lunch consists of bottled water and 100 percent juice, a variety of whole grain bagels and breads, a fresh salad bar with an assortment of fruits and vegetables and a hot entrée of naturally flavored lean pork, chicken, turkey or fish, prepared daily by on-site cooks. The entire cost for implementing this healthy and nutritious meal program totaled $20,000 per year plus an additional $3.85 per student, according to Natural Ovens Bakery.

MCPS is home to approximately 150,000 students; providing meals for these students under the Natural Ovens Program at $3.85 per student would amount to $577,500, well within the Division of Food and Nutrition Services annual budget of $40 million dollars. The costs to students for higher quality food would be about $2.50 per meal, only $0.45 higher than the current MCPS Daily Special meal.

Rather than pollute students with health-threatening food additives, Blair
ought to take the more nutritious route: increase the availability and encourage the purchase of appetizing, fresh produce and vegetable-based meals. Reducing the number of meat-based meals on the menu will also contribute to an overall improvement in health. As students, we have the responsibility to request nutritious, edible meals that don't leak grease or fill us with chemicals, and Blair has the responsibility to provide us with these meals.

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