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School Lunches Slimming Down?

September 16, 1993|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While Washington was consumed last week with the nuts and bolts of the Clinton Administration's plan to shrink the government gravy train, another announcement about a federal meat-and-potatoes issue went mostly overlooked.

Specifically, there will be less meat and more potatoes in the nation's school lunches if U.S. Department of Agriculture officials can enact their proposed reforms in the $4-billion program.

Under its "Fresh Start" initiative, USDA will double the 8.8 million pounds of fresh produce distributed by the federal government to the feeding program that serves about 25 million meals a day. The plan also calls for significant reductions in the fat content of meat and cheeses served in schools.

"We are going to make school lunches healthy for our children," said Ellen Haas, USDA's assistant secretary for food and consumer services. "Kids' diets do not meet the (U.S. government's) dietary guidelines, do not contain enough fruit or vegetables, and are too high in fat. Nor do today's school lunches provide healthy options."

School lunch advocates and critics say the plan may be well-intentioned but will be difficult to implement because of budgetary restraints and children's fickle palates, particularly when it comes to vegetables.

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The impetus for the change are studies, such as a recent USDA survey, that found 80% of the school-age children (ages 6 through 19) had diets with high-fat intakes. The same study reported that 35% of the elementary school children queried had no fruit on the day of the survey.

"There is increasing evidence that childhood diets high in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol have lasting adverse health consequences," said the USDA.

The need for improvement in the federally funded school lunch program was underscored by a report issued last week by Public Voice for Food and Health Policy. The Washington-based consumer group has been producing annual reviews of school lunches for the past five years and continues to find the program deficient. (Haas is former executive director of Public Voice but a group representative said that the timing of the two announcements was coincidental.)

Public Voice found that the school lunch program is not doing enough to encourage the consumption of fruit and vegetables. According to its survey, fruit and vegetables are missing from as many as 33% of the meals selected by children enrolled in the program.

The group also found that many schools are ill-equipped to handle or store significant amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables even if more produce is available.

"USDA needs to address problems such as their delivery of only a tiny amount of fresh produce to local school districts," said Tricia Obester of Public Voice. "Donated federal commodities make up about 20% of the content of school lunches but only 1% of this figure is fruit and vegetables." (The remainder of the federal assistance comes in the form of reimbursement to state and local school authorities who operate the subsidized meal program.)

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A produce industry trade group applauded USDA's move toward increasing fruit and vegetables in school lunch while recognizing "you can't force children to eat a healthful diet."

"Providing a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunches will help children enjoy the tastes, textures and fun of fresh produce," said Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Assn. "We can teach good nutrition in the classroom, but providing fresh fruit and vegetables in the cafeteria can help make kids learn healthy choices for a lifetime."

The USDA announcement did not sit as well with meat industry representatives and was called an "overreaction."

"Children need proteins to grow, and we don't think they can live on fruit and carrots alone," said Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the Western States Meat Assn. in Oakland.

Production of low-fat hot dogs and hamburgers is under way today, Mucklow said, but these foods are less palatable, especially to children, than their regular counterparts.

"It is good to give kids what they need but also to allow them to pick what they like," she said. "We understand the importance of good nutrition but also the importance of a balanced diet. Excluding things from the school lunch program would be very unfortunate."

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A long-time advocate of improving the school lunch program said last week's announcement will turn out to be an empty gesture unless more federal funds are forthcoming.

"The proposed changes will increase the cost of school lunches, and there is no commitment on the part of the USDA to provide additional funding to make this upgrade," said Rod Leonard, executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute in Washington. "USDA officials are kidding themselves, the students and the parents if they think they can carry out these changes without additional money. School lunch programs already operate on a shoestring budget."

Haas said additional funding will not be forthcoming but that nutritional improvements can be made anyway.

"It is imperative that we do this in a cost-effective manner where local schools will be able to produce and serve a healthy meal and also meet their budgetary requirements," she said. "There should be no conflict between healthy school meals and following the school budget."

In addition to the measures announced last week, USDA has scheduled four hearings throughout the country, including one in Los Angeles Oct. 27, to solicit public comment on further improving the nutritional content of federally funded school lunches.

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