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5 myths about school food

In Compton, Calif., Tracie Thomas introduced salad bars, which are now one of the most popular options for students. In New Orleans, chef April Neujean conducts fruit and vegetable tastings with her kindergartners - one for each letter of the alphabet - as they learn their ABCs (Apples, Bananas, Carrots, Daikon radishes). I have seen students enthusiastically eating all sorts of healthy options, especially where they have first encountered the foods in a school garden or classroom cooking demonstration, helped to plant or harvest the vegetables or even met the farmer growing their greens.

Kids will eat vegetables, even in the cafeteria, though they are far less likely to do this if they can purchase salty snacks and sweets from a display near the cash register, a vending machine or a snack bar.

For example, a study in Texas found that students with access to a la carte foods ate only three-quarters as many fruits and vegetables as did those without such easy access to other snacks. A survey in Kentucky found that students who bought extra snacks to go with their lunch had greater fruit "plate waste" - or uneaten food - than did students who passed up such purchases.

4. Schools need to sell junk foods to break even.

Most cafeterias have them: pizza, chips, french fries and cookies for sale alongside healthy meals that are federally reimbursable. The food service directors I have interviewed uniformly believed that they must sell such items in order to break even and that the a la carte sales were subsidizing the official, federally regulated school lunch. A new cost study, however, shows this to be yet another school food myth.

Junk food sales don't even pay for themselves: On average, they bring in just 71 percent of the costs associated with offering them. Thus, school districts wind up diverting to a la carte sales substantial portions of the federal cash reimbursements intended to subsidize healthy meals.

The new legislation seems to recognize this challenge, and will help the cafeterias doing battle with vending machines. It gives the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to regulate all foods for sale in schools participating in the NSLP.

5. Higher federal nutrition standards will ensure healthy eating.

Take a look at what happened last time Congress mandated higher nutrition standards for school food.

In the mid-1990s, Congress decided that school meals should comply with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which specified that no more than 30 percent of calories should come from fat. In an effort to comply, many schools eliminated whole milk, but then found their meals falling below the calorie minimums set by the USDA. They couldn't afford to add another fruit or vegetable, so many schools began offering sweetened, flavored milk, replacing the now-forbidden calories from fat with calories from high fructose corn syrup.

The new standards, developed by the Institute of Medicine, call for a dramatic reduction in sodium to be phased in. This might work well if sodium were simultaneously reduced in the foods sold at corner stores and fast-food restaurants, but without such changes everywhere, it could actually lead to a drop in participation as school meals become more healthy.

Nutritional standards can do only so much to get kids to eat balanced meals. The basic federal meal guidelines used by a majority of schools require them to offer five components: meat or meat alternate, a grain product, fluid milk, and two servings of fruit and vegetables. The school meal is counted as reimbursable if students pick at least three of those components. A grilled chicken breast, a green salad and a carton of low-fat milk constitute a reimbursable meal, but so do a hot dog roll (the grain), a serving of french fries (the vegetable) and a dish of canned peaches (the fruit).

We need to do much more with food and health education, and make sure that what we offer in the cafeteria reflects what we are teaching in the classroom. That kind of integration with the curriculum is far more feasible in a universal free program where eating school lunch becomes the norm.

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act authorizes pilot programs in individual schools and districts to experiment with universal free-meal approaches. The National School Lunch and Breakfast programs will come up again in five years, the next scheduled Child Nutrition Reauthorization. Let's start now to make universal free school meals the goal for that legislation.

Janet Poppendieck, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, is the author of "Free for All: Fixing School Food in America."

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