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


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

Comments () | Archives (3)

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I think the responsibility really lies with the parents. Gosh, I remember working at a daycare many years ago and the stuff parents packed in their kids lunches was appalling. Some kids just ate some version of lunchables every day. They might as well just send the kid to school with a salt lick around his neck.

As a pediatric nutritionist who works with families, when kids say their favorite thing about school lunch is the milk, that's good news. Even still, about 6 in 10 kids don't get enough calcium from their diets, and maybe this survey is telling us that parents need to make other not-so-nutritious drinks less available and start encouraging kids to drink more milk at home.

As for the chocolate milk issue, everyone has a few "discretionary calories" to spend, and I'd like to see these calories spent encouraging kids to eat and drink foods and beverages with good, solid nutrition. A glass of 1% flavored milk still has way less sugar than a can of regular soda and delivers a heck of a lot more of what kids need. Studies even show chocolate (and plain) 1% milk to be a good post exercise drink and a good way to rehydrate.

Parents, take note. Your kids really like milk. Let's give it to them.

When the government gets involved in feeding children, there is always more to it than meets the eye.

This poll doesn't tell you that most items on the public school menus is genetically modified, grown with petroleum based fertilizers and chemical pesticides. The milk and cheese products come from cows living in cramped factory dairies, and the beef, chicken and other meats from CAFO slaughtered animals fed a steady diet of antibiotics.

The bottom of the barrel of American factory farm/government subsidized agriculture makes it onto the plates of our most vulnerable population: low income, minority students of public schools unable to afford fresh, safe, and nutritious home made meals.

Is it any wonder that the children eating these meals are constantly sick, overweight, unable to focus, exhibit overly aggressive interpersonal behavior, and just can't seem to produce the test results Mayor Villaraigosa, Governor Schwarzenegger and the state taxpayers so desperately desire?

Perhaps, it is time to consider supporting community based agriculture, farmer's markets, organic and sustainable dairy and meat products for our children.

Giving our children truly nutritional choices may not be popular in the farm belt or in Washington, D.C., but it would sustain and grow our local, sustainable, organic agricultural economy greatly, reduce health care, policing and incarceration costs, and ultimately, help our most needy children get a head start in life.

Both of my children attend public elementary schools in the City of Los Angeles.


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