Cafeteria Menus Get Failing Grades

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008

A District-based nonprofit organization, affiliated with a group that promotes a vegan diet, issued a report card today on school lunches that gives two local school systems failing grades for the amount of processed meat they serve to students.

D.C. and Montgomery County public schools received the low grades in the Cancer Project's evaluation because they offer processed meats for breakfast and/or lunch more than 20 percent of the time. Two other systems evaluated in the study, those in Fairfax and Prince George's counties, received "poor" ratings; they offer processed meat products more than 15 percent but less than 20 percent of the time, the study says.

The Cancer Project looked at a month's worth of breakfast and lunch menus at 28 of the country's largest school systems. The group is affiliated with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which evaluates school lunch menus yearly, focusing on the number of vegetarian and vegan (excluding all animal products) menu items offered.

The Cancer Project is urging school systems to stop serving hot dogs, deli meats, pepperoni and other processed meats because some studies have linked consumption of such foods to colon and rectal cancer.

"Cancer risk starts early,'' said Neal Barnard, president of the Cancer Project in a statement that accompanied the report. "If we don't protect our kids by removing hot dogs, sausages, deli slices and pepperoni slices from our schools, we're stacking the cards against them."

The American Meat Association called the Cancer Project's efforts to banned processed meats "outrageous," noting that manufacturers offer options that meet many dietary needs, including low-fat, low-sodium and uncured processed meats.

School nutrition officials said that, given fiscal constraints and logistics, it is difficult to avoid serving processed meats. Although many systems, including those in the study, have focused on serving fresher, low-fat meals, they say processed food is included in their offerings.

They argue, however, that education, not bans, is the answer.

"We are trying to move to a less-processed environment," said Mydina Thabet, dietician and food specialist for the Prince George's schools. "But what we try to tell people is everything in moderation."

In the District, schools officials said they plan to expand a program designed to bring more fresh foods, including salad bars, into cafeterias, after a pilot program at two high schools and two elementary campuses last school year was successful.

Mafara Hobson, spokeswoman for D.C. public schools, said officials think the school system has leaned too heavily on processed foods and have decided to revamp menus because students were not eating what was offered.

Susan Levin, senior dietician for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said this is the first time a group has examined the use of processed meat in school lunches.

School lunch programs, which serve almost 30 million children a year, have long been a target of health advocates, who criticize them for being laden with salt and fat. Efforts to overhaul the programs have taken root, but many food service officials say they are hampered by shrinking budgets and finicky students. But with the prevalence of overweight among children tripling since the 1980s, health advocacy groups say more must be done.

Levin said her group understands that food service directors face daunting challenges. She also noted that many systems are trying.

Although Montgomery received a failing grade for its dependence on processed meats, she praised the system for trying to offer healthful menu items, citing its recent effort to introduce soy burgers and other non-meat alternatives on its menus. But she said all systems need to do more.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company