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The National School Lunch Program was born of good intentions. In 1946, after World War II draft boards rejected legions of feeble, underfed men, the government began reimbursing schools for lunches, allowing the poorest students to dine for free. The USDA monitors the program, ensuring schools meet certain calorie and nutrition standards.
Today, however, economics drives school nutrition. At best, schools break even on the 27 million federally subsidized meals they serve each day, with most receiving a paltry $2.14 for each free meal, hardly enough to pay for equipment, labor, fresh produce or the relatively pricey ingredients needed for low-fat cooking. Consequently, while school meals meet most of the government's nutritional requirements, fewer than 20% stay within the limits for saturated fat.
The real money--and calories--are in a la carte, branded items, which schools often mark up 50% to 100%, and sodas from vending machines. Consider the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, which managed to entice students and their pocketbooks into the cafeteria by offering Chick-fil-A, Subway and Papa John's products. While Northside's federal lunches sell for $1.75, a single 7-in. slice of Papa John's goes for $2, more than twice what the district pays to get it.
Nationally, 20% of schools sell branded foods, and nearly all senior high schools operate vending machines. Beyond simply subsidizing the government meals, those dollars buoy cash-strapped schools in other ways, funding field trips and buying sports equipment. They also lure kids away from healthier options. In one study by the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine, students in schools with snack foods consumed 50% less fruit, juice and vegetables.
Despite the current momentum, legislation to restrict junk food has faltered at the state level. But reforms are taking off in individual districts like Los Angeles, which voted in August to ban sodas by 2004, and Philadelphia, which rejected a $43 million exclusive contract with Coca-Cola.
Dollars aren't the only obstacle. The state of Illinois last spring tried to crack down on schools in Oak Park that order in lunch from McDonald's, Domino's, Subway, KFC or Tasty Dog once or twice a week as part of a lucrative fund raiser sponsored by the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO). But parents fought the state for a special waiver; in exchange, they made some minimal concessions, such as serving pretzels instead of chips alongside the hot dogs. "You could make it a little more health conscious if you skipped the fries and put an apple [with the KFC]," says Candy French, an Oak Park PTO council co-president. Says Patty Jacobs, another PTO co-president: "A nutritious lunch is a lost cause."
Broccoli Gets a Boost
Serving healthy food is one thing. Getting kids to eat--and like--it is another. Schools are doing everything from extending the standard 20-minute lunch period to giving students real silverware, all in an effort to make dining a more agreeable experience.