WFAEats
12:00 am
Tue March 27, 2012

Weighing Healthy Choices In The School Lunch Line

Cindy Ayers takes great pride in her kitchen. She keeps everything clean and well organized. She has to – she feeds hundreds of Elementary school kids every day. Ayers is the Cafeteria Manager at Highland Creek Elementary and oversees the preparation and serving of about 800 meals daily, including breakfast and after school snacks. But the real haul comes at lunchtime when 600-700 kids buy a school made lunch (out of 1200 enrolled). We visited the cafeteria on an ordinary Tuesday to see how it all goes down.

While taste is of utmost importance for the kids, parents and educators alike are hoping for a little healthful nutrition as childhood obesity becomes a very real problem. Child Nutrition Services for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools uses guidelines set by the USDA to develop their menus. Every elementary, middle and high school system-wide follows the same menu. Four week-long menus are set and rotate on a monthly basis. (See the menus for March here.)

How Child Nutrition Services describes lunch service at CMS schools on their website:

A complete lunch consists of an entrée, two sides, and milk. Students may select a minimum of an entrée and one side to have the purchase count as a meal. By offering a variety of nutritious choices, students can select a meal made up of foods they enjoy. The menus follow the nutrient-based guidelines established by the USDA and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which assure meals average no more than 30% of their calories from fat.

Critics still say there is too much salt, saturated fat and cholesterol in many of the meals. USDA guidelines for school lunches continue to evolve; First Lady Michelle Obama recently announced they will aim for more whole grains, low fat dairy and fruits and vegetables.

On this particular day, (Tuesday March 27) Highland Creek Elementary was serving chicken nuggets, spaghetti casserole or chef salad with mashed potatoes, mixed veggies, side salad and bread along with fresh pears, grapes, strawberries and applesauce. Also available were milk, chips, a variety of ice cream novelties, cookies, cupcakes and juice boxes.

For the kids, it comes down to choice.

Regardless of the variety of options available to kids – some healthy, some not so much, the students pick what they want to eat for lunch. Glenda Shepardson, Northeast Area Supervisor for CMS says that everyone is involved in nudging the kids towards more healthy choices – teachers and cafeteria staff question the child’s selections. If they are missing a fruit or veggie, a cashier might suggest the student go pick one up. Encouraging is one thing, but in the end, the decision is the student’s, no one can force them to eat their veggies and go for another fruit instead of an ice cream.

Though healthier options are always available, the masses have spoken – according to cafeteria staff, the favorites include cheese sticks with marinara sauce, hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken nuggets and nachos. The kids go nuts for the nachos says Ayers, the cafeteria manager. At the end of the day she says she feels like she’s sold all of Highland Creek some nachos. But she says, the kids also like broccoli with cheese and they can’t seem to make enough Caesar salads to go around – a new and highly demanded item.In the six years she’s been at the school, Ayers has seen the menu turn more health-conscious. When she started, a lot of things were fried – French fries, fried chicken and more. Now she says everything is baked, there are no more deep fryers in the kitchen. They are also more aware of food allergies; CMS doesn’t serve anything with peanuts or shellfish – you won’t see a PB&J anywhere near a Charlotte-area school cafeteria.

Kids can of course bring their own lunch, but most of the students buy from the cafeteria, of the 1200 enrolled at this particular school, about 600-700 eat the school lunch.

At the request of a producer for Charlotte Talks, CMS conducted a nutritional survey of their lunch options for March 12-23. This is what they found. (Based on this menu provided by CMS Child Nutritional Services.)

Meet federal guidelines (60 pts): 60 pts
Vegetarian option (1 pt for each day it is offered) (10 pts): 10 pts
Vegan option offered, low-fat (e.g., not PB&J) (1 pt for each day it is offered): 0 pts
Any of the following (3 pts each, up to 20 pts): 6 pts

  • Calcium-rich dairy alternative: no
  • Meatless Monday or similar: no
  • Nutrition information posted: yes
  • Salad bar: no
  • Whole grains: no
  • Orange or dark green vegetables: no
  • Farm-to-school: no
  • School garden: don’t think so
  • Cooking classes: no
  • Healthy eating promotions: no
  • Nutrition events: no

Note: Subtract points for offering a processed red meat (1 pt for each day it is offered): -2 pts

Total: 74/100