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What's in that school lunch? Fruit as well as fries

August 18, 2009 | 12:14 pm

Sandwich

Guess what’s in the top five foods kids eat from the school cafeteria. Not French fries and not pizza. Fruit, which comes in at No. 3, and vegetables, No. 5.

The NPD Group, a consumer research company, came up with the top 10 foods children ages 6 to 12 eat from the cafeteria and the top 10 they eat in lunches they bring from home – and released the results just as millions of parents hand over responsibility to schools for feeding their children lunch – and sometimes breakfast, says Harry Balzer, NPD vice president. He has studied American eating habits for more than a quarter of a century.

Thirty million school lunches are served every day in U.S. public schools. Of children ages 6 to 12, 28% bring their lunch to school, according to NPD.

Topping the school-provided foods is milk. Balzer says he was surprised to learn that half of that is chocolate milk. “Is that good or bad? I don’t know,” he says.

“It says to me that taste is so important,” Balzer says.

And the rest of the list: sandwiches, fruit, fruit drinks, vegetables, pizza, chicken, French fries, fruit salad and cookies. There was no breakdown in the items, so, for example, chicken would include nuggets as well as other preparations.

So, how does the fare provided by mom and dad compare? The list for lunches brought from home: sandwiches, fruit, salty snacks, fruit drinks, cookies, milk, vegetables, fruit snacks, yogurt and crackers.


Children can get milk at school even if they bring their lunch, which could explain why it’s No. 6.

Yogurt didn’t even make the list a decade ago, Balzer says. But sandwiches have long topped the list.

To go with that baloney or PB&J, “Mom’s more likely to give salty snacks than the school,” Balzer notes.

That could be because of regulations governing what foods schools can serve. And none of this takes into account an early lesson in economics at which children excel: trading food. Even the healthiest-minded parent might not be able to hold sway against the lure of swapping a sandwich bag of cut-up veggies for a packaged chocolate chip cookie. Let alone Lunchables.

NPD has looked at lunches from home for years but did not have comparison data for school lunches. The lists come from food diaries kept by 2,000 Americans.

To anyone who didn’t expect fruit to fare so well, Balzer says, “We eat more fruit than just about any other snack.”

“But just because they eat fruit doesn’t mean they don’t eat salty snacks or junk food.”

Although Balzer says he’s not sure what schools or parents might make of the lists, Congress will soon be considering what kids eat at school. The Child Nutrition Act is up for reauthorization this fall, and it covers school lunch and breakfast programs, among others. Advocates for change would like to see more money allocated for school food and more regulations about what can be served to children.

-- Mary MacVean

Photo: Anajiun Hopson eats a fish sandwich in Jackson, Miss. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press

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