Counting school lunch calories

Published on Thu, Feb 27, 2003 by Christian Knight

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Counting school lunch calories

By Christian Knight

Every day up to 1,000 Blaine school district children could be eating what Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) argue is one of the three culprits for childhood obesity: school lunches.

PCRM released a study last August that claimed most of the nation�s public schools are failing to provide the lunches that help prevent obesity and other problems.

�Most of the foods schools purchase include high fat, high cholesterol meat and dairy products,� reported Jennifer Keller, R.D. lead researcher in the study. �Since schools have such a tight budget for food, they need to make that food dollar go as far as possible.�

After reviewing a recent Blaine elementary school lunch menu, the Washington D.C. dietician said Blaine school district could be committing the same mistake.

�Its lunch menu is almost identical to the menus in other districts we�ve evaluated,� Keller said. �It sounds like too high fat; not enough fiber.�

The ratio of too much fat and not enough nutrition in school lunches is contributing to a growing problem, the committee reported. At least five million children aged six to 17 are considered obese.

The Whatcom County Health Department looked at obesity trends in post-high school aged Whatcom County residents. It found a 15 percent obesity/overweight increase from 1996 to 2002.

All meats served in the Blaine school district come from King�s Commodities in Kent, Washington after the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approves the meat from farmers. There, the school lunch specialists process and precook meat to the schools� requests. Upon delivery, it is stored in the freezer until time of serving. Cooks then slide large aluminum baking pans filled with food into conventional ovens. With the exception of Little Caesar�s cheese and pepperoni pizza, menu entrees are mostly prepared through the same process.

Everyday, students can choose between a custom sub sandwich, burgers and fries, pizza, and the rotating entr�e lunch, of which the chicken nuggets entice the most students. An average rotating entr�e lunch will attract about 85 students to its line.On chicken nugget day, however, an average of 125 students will file in the entr�e line.

Lori Pike, food service director at Blaine high and middle schools estimated 125 of her 500 to 600 student customers eat a sub sandwich per day. Approximately 130 students venture through the hamburger and fries line. One hundred twenty students snag a slice or two of pizza. �When a lot of people think about pizza they think about all the grease and fat,� Pike said. �But I evaluated the nutritional value of the pizza before agreeing to feed it to these kids. The tomato sauce and the crust is all homemade. It doesn�t come frozen or anything. The tomato sauce does count for one-quarter cup of vegetables. The crust counts as the grains they would need for the day and the cheese is a protein.�

�I think that a lot of food service directors say that pizza is the perfect food,� Keller said. �But in reality it contains few nutrients.

Blaine high and middle school students can also choose between a score of a la carte items including nine different kinds of ice cream, five different cookies and seven potato and corn chip flavors. In addition to the a la carte items, Blaine school district has 15 operating Coca-Cola machines and a couple of vending machines.

�Kids are gobbling those (sodas and candy) up,� Keller said. �I think that�s a lot of the reason why kids are getting fatter.�

Blaine school district superintendent Dr. Gordon Dolman also acknowledged the dismal effect of these vending machines. �We�ve had a couple of concerned parents ask us if these soda machines are really necessary. We are looking into it.�

Whether they are necessary or not is really a question for the Associated Student Body (ASB). Coca-Cola paid the Blaine ASB $7,685 to place its machines on the school district�s campus. While the USDA does restrict the sale of soda or candy � Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value (FMNV) � to times and places that won�t compete with the school lunch for student consumption, no one denies how distracting they can be. �A lot of kids would rather have a candy bar and a Coke for lunch than anything else,� Pike said.

The school board discussed looking for alternative drinks such as juice, teas and milk at last Tuesday�s meeting and noted that the vending machines brought in a total of $4,000 during the last academic year. The money was used to support the band and choir, and also helped with activities like field trips. The school receives 25 percent of profits from vending machines.

As a whole, however, both Pike and Dolman believe the school district is nourishing its students. �I think they continue to improve nutritional value,� Dolman said. �In comparison to the lunches we had in our childhood, it�s a lot lower fat.�

Pike believes the more culpable factors leading to childhood obesity are too much fast food and not enough exercise. Students at Blaine high school have just 30 minutes for lunch, which doesn�t allow students time for any vigorous exercise. �It�s just enough time to get, eat and pay for lunch and get back to class,� she said.

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