School lunches get upgrade, pleasing palates and boosting nutrition
Americans of a certain age remember the famous school pizza meal: the little square bits of pepperoni, the likely imitation cheese, the slight taste of the freezer still lingering with every bite.
Even though kids probably knew it wasn’t exactly healthy, they ate it — and might have grown to love it, because that’s what was served.
Now, students are looking for something better — and districts are delivering.
“Their palates are much more sophisticated than perhaps we were as children,” said Lindsay Radzvin, food service director of North Hills School District. “They’re growing up in an entirely different world. Their exposure is greater.”
Today, many students eat fresh meat supplied by local farmers and salads made with veggies from district gardens.
Hummus and vegetables replace cooked spinach that students used to look at and then throw away without ever taking a bite. Chicken sandwiches are made with white meat, whole grain buns and less sodium than the processed mystery patty.
In 1853, the Children’s Aid Society of New York started serving meals to vocational school students, according to a USDA history on school lunches. The Starr Center Association, a mutual aid and self-help society, in 1894 launched a penny lunch program at a school in Philadelphia.
The local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women in 1911 launched a penny lunch program in Pittsburgh, serving up to 200 children at three Strip District schools. It grew to become the school district’s cafeteria program.
By the time of the Great Depression in 1933, school lunch programs had been set up across the country by “parent-teacher associations, extension workers and many other welfare agencies,” the American Home Economics Association reported at the time.
During that time, the federal government became involved as a way to help financially suffering farmers and nutritionally suffering children. Money from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was used to buy surplus crops, pay the unemployed to cook well-rounded meals and feed hungry children.
In 1936, the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which today sets rules for meals served by the nearly 99,000 schools across the country that feed 30 million kids a year — published a 25-page book titled “Menus and Recipes for Lunches at School.”
Sample menus included:
• Split-pea soup with cured pork, bread and butter sandwich, fruit, cookie and milk.
• Creamed liver and potatoes, carrot sticks or celery, bread and butter sandwich, fruit and milk.
• Meat and vegetable stew, bread and butter sandwich, fruit and milk.
• Creamed salmon with noodles, chopped-cabbage sandwich, fruit and milk.
By comparison, lunch options on North Hills school menus include:
• Crispy chicken nuggets with dipping sauces; garlic breadstick; sweet, buttery corn; garden salad with dressing or a daily fruit and vegetable; milk.
• Cheese or pepperoni pizza; green beans; garden salad with dressing or a daily fruit and vegetable; rainbow sherbet; milk.
• Chicken Caesar or vegetarian flatbread; sweet potato fries.
• General Tso chicken stir fry; vegetable rice; oriental vegetables; fortune cookie.
Law and changes
Congress in 1946 passed the National School Lunch Act, which President Harry S. Truman signed.
Over the years, different guidelines have been put into place to improve nutrition and quality of what is served.
The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 extended a program to provide federal milk subsidies to schools, established a pilot breakfast program and provided money for non-food equipment purchases to expand meal services to students.
The Reagan administration infamously proposed classifying ketchup and pickle relish as a vegetable, which it abandoned in 1981 along with subbing “soybean cakes for hamburger and doughnuts for bread,” the Washington Post reported at the time.
A 2008 study published in Pediatrics found that the vast majority of middle and high schools allowed students access to vending machines and a la carte cafeteria menus. “These two sources often contain low-nutrient, energy-dense foods and beverages, commonly referred to as junk food,” the study stated.
Ann Condon Meyers, a registered dietitian at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, said the national School Lunch Program remained largely unchanged between when it was created in 1946 until 2008, when a study found children were eating lunches with too few fruits and vegetables and too much sodium and saturated fat.
The program originally required simply a dairy product, a starch or grain, a fruit and a vegetable.
“The basic four food groups were really the first national way for us to teach nutrition. That didn’t change a whole lot for a long time,” Meyers said. “The purpose of the school lunch program initially was to feed children that were malnourished. Now, we’re looking at the opposite problem.”
The Obama administration’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 aimed to reduce childhood obesity and improve overall health by incorporating more whole grains, vegetables and fruits, making healthy meals available to more low-income children and other measures.
The USDA in 2012 finalized major changes to government-subsidized school meals for the first time in 15 years. Michelle Obama helped usher in the new rules — which required more fruits and green vegetables and foods with less salt and fat, including allowing chocolate milk in skim milk form — by eating a turkey taco with elementary school children in Alexandria, Va.
“When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home,” the first lady said. “We want the food they get at school to be the same kind of food we would serve at our own kitchen tables.”
A 2016 study published in JAMA Pediatrics showed that the measures seemed to be working in that school meals had become healthier and that roughly the same number of children were participating in school lunch programs.
The study did not account for whether children actually ate the food, however.
“Food that’s thrown in the trash cannot nourish any child, and frankly that trash can doesn’t need any nourishment,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told the School Nutrition Association in 2017.
That year, the Trump administration announced changes to provide “greater flexibility in nutrition requirements for school meal programs in order to make food choices both healthful and appealing to students.” The changes were finalized in December 2018.
Those changes included relaxing rules on whole grains, sodium and fat. The new rules allowed school lunch programs to again offer 1% flavored milk — including chocolate.
“I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without chocolate milk,” Perdue quipped in 2017.
Six states and two advocacy groups this year sued the Trump administration over the changes in federal court.
Deer Lakes students are always excited for “comfort food Thursday,” which incorporates farm-to-table items from local farms, said Jake Douglas, food services director.
Other items served in the cafeteria also are healthier, Douglas said, and he’s seen students respond in a positive way.
“Students make the option of getting an apple instead of a bag of chips,” he said.
The district will implement a new “shared table” program this year to reduce food waste. Students leave food they don’t want or can’t eat for someone who may still be hungry.
Andy Bergman, regional manager at Nutrition Inc., which handles food for several districts, including Hempfield Area and Greensburg Salem, said visible cooking stations — from stir-fry to pancakes — are becoming more prominent.
“You do the best you can with it. We try to be creative, make things fun, appealing to the kids,” he said.
Nutrition Inc. tries to teach nutritional information to kids and families by offering pamphlets at open houses and walking them through what breakfast and lunches look like at school. Kids are often given recipes to take home and try with their families, he added. Those are usually given out on Wellness Wednesdays, when the focus is on cooking fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It’s really getting at them at a young age and getting them exposed,” Bergman said.