The Silent Epidemic: School Lunch Food

by Magdalen O’Reilly

Recently the news has been flooded with images of an infamous fleshy-pink gunk, coiling into an unappetizing vat. The tubular meat product has been a PR nightmare for national fast food chains and groceries. One after another, companies jumped ship: McDonalds, Taco Bell, Safeway and grocery giant SuperValu have announced they will no longer be carrying what the meat industry has affectionately termed “lean finely textured beef”. The news and activists are calling it “pink slime.” As the fast food chains–long chastised for their lack of quality–begin to phase out the meat, one place is intent on keeping it: school lunch rooms.

This has stoked the flames of an ongoing controversy over the quality of school lunches. Even in a place like Corvallis, which is surrounded by local farms, school districts continue to get the majority of their food from Sysco, Food Services of America, the USDA and McDonalds. The 509J district website boasts that, “We are not the same Food Service you may have experienced as a child”. They are technically correct, as I was never served a ‘cheesy zombie’ in elementary school. A cheesy zombie being the rough equivalent of an empanada filled with melted cheese. Along with that is the usual fare: chicken patty sandwich, tacos, beef burritos, corn dogs, pizza, meat nachos with Spanish rice, and so on. All are things I remember eating in elementary school. The March menu for the elementary schools decrees that the “Pick of the Month” is blueberries, despite there being no blueberries on the menu. Aren’t blueberries a summer fruit, anyway?

Middle and high school students get about the same treatment. Pizza is served 4 days a week. Don’t like pizza? That’s okay. You can have a chicken patty… or a chicken wrap… or a BBQ chicken sandwich… or popcorn chicken. Are you sensing a pattern? Beef burritos, corn dogs, cheese quesadillas: the vast majority of foods on the menu fall under the categories of meat or starch. Now to be fair, there is a salad bar. Every school menu I have come across has a salad bar. And as a 26 year old woman, given those choices, I would be making salads every day. However, as a child and adolescent, that was out of the question for me when chocolate milk and pizza were available.

In the school system’s defense, there is full disclosure on the website. The menus are posted monthly, along with a chart explaining the nutritional value of each item. They even have a system so parents can track what their kids are buying on their accounts. But the maps are particularly shocking when you look at some of the items. The first thing that stands out is the staggering amount of sodium. The pepperoni pizza, tuna sandwich and tomato soup all containing over 1000mg of sodium per serving. The FDA recommends a limit of 2,400mg of sodium per day for an adult.

The school district’s Director of Food and Nutrition Service, Sharon Gibson, could not be reached for comment.

To get an expert’s perspective on the nutritional analysis, I contacted a dietician at Good Samaritan hospital. I sent their office the menus and nutritional charts and asked them for a comment. The first response I received said that no one could comment until it was approved by the Good Samaritan Marketing department. Once they got the okay from Marketing, clinical nutrition manager Sara Thomas had this to say:

“The Corvallis School District can be praised for their widespread use of whole grains in their menus. Whole grains have more vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. Kids who eat more whole grains have healthier weights and smaller waists.  Whole grains also help reduce risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Whole grains have more recently been linked with lower risk of asthma symptoms in kids. Continue the whole grain benefit at home by choosing oatmeal, 100% whole wheat bread, 10-minute brown rice, and other whole grain foods. Tip: Check that the first ingredient on the list contains the word “whole”…

“…The salad, fruit, and vegetable bar is a great feature of the school menus as well. On the downside the menu still has some processed meats and high sodium foods, but overall things are moving in the right direction. It’s tough to change our eating habits and eating environment, but by working on it at school and at home we can help raise healthier kids together.”

With the exception of her comment about the processed meats and salt, the response was overwhelmingly positive. And everything she said was true. The school district does offer low fat milk, whole wheat breads and the option of a salad bar. However, the chef’s salad can have up to 930mgs of sodium. And the entire nutritional chart seems to strangely be missing any measurement of sugar. What’s also an issue is the apparent lack of any vegetables within the hot lunch option. Kids can either choose a completely vegetarian option, or a completely meat and starch one. There doesn’t seem to be any overlap. It’s easy to see how so many Americans eat vegetables as an afterthought.

But like all things, it comes down to money and regulations. The schools are bound by the rules set out by the FDA and Oregon Department of Education (ODE) to buy specific foods from specific sources. Everything offered by the schools is strictly regulated to meet certain standards. A reconstruction of the menu would be a huge undertaking.

It seems like everyone in this process is bound by a huge amount of red tape. It’s almost as if the ODE is so afraid of getting a kid sick because of E. coli or salmonella, it’s safer to feed them the least amount of organic material possible. This school lunch has been doused with ammonia, deep fried and vacuum sealed for your protection. It’s a long, in-depth process that amounts to one thing: covering their asses. It’s easy to place blame on the schools who buy the food, or the ODE who dictates what they must buy, or even the parents who don’t have time to make a sack lunch. But in reality, the situation is much more complex. There are no villains out to poison the youth of Corvallis. And parents want their kids to be healthy, even when they don’t stay informed about school nutrition. What we need is higher standards; not about food safety, but about food quality. Sara Thomas was correct, we’re moving in the right direction. But by no means are we moving fast enough for this generation.