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Reading and Writing and Rigatoni: What's for Lunch at School?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ann Cooper has been trying to fix school lunches for a decade.

"We need to stop our children from dying from diet-related diseases," she says. She cites federal statistics that show a third of children are overweight or obese, conditions that can lead to diabetes and other illnesses. "Children who are not nourished can never grow to achieve their potential."

If we want America's kids to eat better, Cooper thinks the school cafeteria is a good place to start. Cooper has owned or worked at half a dozen restaurants; she has also directed food programs at schools in New York and California, and currently she is the interim director of nutrition services for the schools of Boulder Valley, Colo. She is also the founder of the Food Family Farming Foundation and is a consultant to Whole Foods Market for the chain's new school lunch campaign.

She's coming to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase YMCA on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. to speak about her favorite subject: replacing the fatty, salty, processed foods that turn up on too many lunch trays with fresh, more-healthful alternatives. (For information, call the Y at 301-530-3725.)

Good nutrition "should be a birthright in our country," she says. "This could be the social justice issue of our time."

It's certainly on the agenda this month. Congress is due to update and reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which, among other things, dictates the details of the $9.3 billion National School Lunch Program, through which some 30.5 million students receive free or reduced-price lunches (and, in many districts, breakfasts and after-school snacks). That number has been growing lately, as the tough economy has led to increased participation in the program at every grade level since 2005, according to the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a national organization based at National Harbor.

President Obama has asked for $1 billion more for child nutrition programs, including the school lunch program, in his 2010 budget proposal. Among the changes school-nutrition advocates hope Congress will consider: increasing the per-meal reimbursement the government gives schools, banning trans fats from school menus and encouraging schools to include more locally grown foods in the lunches they provide.

The subsidized meals are built in part around surplus edibles that the federal government buys from farmers to keep prices steady; these foods include far more meat and dairy products than vegetables or whole grains. The subsidized meals must meet certain nutrition standards, but processed and fatty foods such as chicken nuggets and french fries remain staples in many school-lunch programs.

Why? Part of the problem is money. According to the SNA, the federal government reimburses schools $2.68 for each lunch served, while those meals cost about $2.92 to produce. Cooper says that two-thirds of this expense goes toward salaries and overhead. She challenges anyone to take the remaining dollar or so to the grocery store and come out with a well-balanced, nutritious and tasty meal. It's no surprise, she says, that many schools simply resort to "highly processed, cheap food."

There are glimmers of hope. The SNA points out that 37 percent of school programs consistently offer locally grown fruits and vegetables, 99 percent offer fat-free or low-fat milk, 96.3 percent offer whole-grain items and more than 91 percent offer salad bars or prepackaged salads. Nearly 64 percent offer vegetarian meals. (All of which is not to say that kids are necessarily eating those foods or that chicken nuggets have lost their place on lunch trays.)

In Boulder Valley, where Cooper has been on the job for just two months, she's trying to get the 28,000-student district to switch from heat-and-serve processed products to made-from-scratch whole foods. "We're instituting all new menus, recipes and foods," she says. "It's very hands-on."

On a larger scale, she's working with Whole Foods to give school districts across America easy, online access to the information and tools they need to overhaul their lunch offerings.

Toward that end, the chain has donated $50,000 to Cooper's foundation to help build a Web site containing information about meal planning and preparation, budgeting and procurement, working with vendors, and dealing with school administrators and parents while revamping lunch programs. (In many school districts, including Boulder Valley's, Cooper says, cafeteria staff members hired just to heat up packaged food need to be trained to actually cook, and cafeterias need to be outfitted with cooking equipment.)

Whole Foods also offers six brief educational videos and healthful-lunch-planning advice on the "school lunch revolution" page of its own Web site. And it lists five ways parents can support their local school cafeteria; one of these tips is to eat lunch with your child at school to taste exactly what's being served.

Who knows? Maybe you'll be pleasantly surprised. If not, perhaps you'll be moved to do something about it.

Check out Tuesday's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer welcomes readers' comments about their kids' school lunch programs. Subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter at http://www.washingtonpost.com/health.

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