National Consumers League

School lunch programs making parents queasy


By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director It should come as no surprise: food in the Washington, DC public school cafeterias is lousy and that kids dump the veggies into the trash – that is the latest dispatch from The Slow Cook himself Ed Bruske, a former Washington Post reporter who spent a week at his daughter’s DC elementary school cafeteria watching what got served up to the kiddies. Bruske, who can usually be found in the pages of the Washington Post entertainingly describing attempts to make the perfect pot roast or risotto, got an eyeful at the school cafeteria. He details what goes into the meals we serve our kids and the ingredients sound both unappetizing and unhealthy: grey beef crumbles, pale-looking spaghetti sauce containing dextrose/and or high-fructose corn syrup, cheddar cheese that looks more like cottage cheese, scrambled eggs from a factory in Minnesota and shipped frozen to DC with an ingredient list that includes modified cornstarch, xanthan gum, liquid pepper extract, citric acid, lipolyzed butter (I have no idea what that is but it doesn’t sound good!), and medium chain triglycerides. Bruske found that most meals were made from processed foods that had been precooked and frozen, all in an effort to keep the menus within the tight budgets allocated for school lunches. Meals are designed to require minimal time and skill, with freshness and flavor being the first to go. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee actually brought in a new food service, which was supposed to stress “fresh cooked” foods. Apparently that’s not working out as planned. Bruske also observed kids eating a breakfast of frosted cookies with soaring sugar content and chocolate and strawberry milk options that contain almost as much sugar per serving as a Coca-Cola. That’s a shame, because the children of Washington DC have one of the highest obesity rates in the country. DC might consider approaches other school systems have taken to get kids to eat healthier: In a Lynnfield, MA, elementary school, officials have begun offering kids incentives—in the form of points that can be redeemed for things kids want including t-shirts, backpacks, skateboards, etc—when they choose healthier options. They offer an “imove menu” that includes chicken Caesar salad wraps, stir fry, pasta and broccoli salad, fresh fruit, carrot sticks, and yogurt. It also includes such kid favorites as chicken nuggets (albeit a low-fat, low-sodium version), lasagna, and pizza. The big difference is that pizza is never offered with a side of French fries; instead, its high-fat content is moderated with sides of green beans and yogurt. And the program’s been a success. The Pine-Richland School District outside of Pittsburgh has switched to whole-grain rolls and pizza crusts and eliminated traditional French fries (today's version is oven-baked, and even those aren't allowed every day). The district offers a wide variety of seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables, including raw vegetables served as side dishes, and the high school occasionally serves brown rice instead of white. All lunch meats are turkey. This list of innovative approaches to getting good healthy food into school cafeterias is too long for me to list. Another very good resource is “” a group formed by parents unhappy about unhealthy offerings in school cafeterias. They have a terrific toolkit for changing how your child’s school approaches the meals served in their cafeterias and lots of good resources on their Web site. Another insightful read is a blog, Fed up with School Lunch, following the experiences of an Illinois school teacher who has vowed to eat what the cafeteria is serving every day in 2010. Discovering at a young age what it means to eat fresh, healthy, and delicious food is a gift that all children deserve. We are indebted to Bruske for telling us—in graphic detail—how much better we can and should be doing for the children of Washington, DC. Michelle Rhee, you have your work cut out for you!