Failing Our Children: The National School Lunch Program Report Card

Failing Our Children: The National School Lunch Program Report Card

kids by Kerrie Saunders, Ph.D.

School is back in session, which means the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is again feeding lunch to most of America’s children. We’ll look at this program, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) Report Card, and then cover how you can have a major impact on your local schools later in this article. A copy of the full report is available at 

The NSLP is a federally assisted meal program operating in nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential childcare institutions. Schools that choose to participate in the program receive cash subsidies, donated commodities, and free bonus shipments for each meal served. In return, they must serve lunches that meet federal nutrition requirements, as well as offer free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children. 

The PCRM scientifically contends that vegetarian children grow up to be slimmer and healthier, and to live longer than their meat-eating friends. They also note that it is much easier to build a nutritious diet from vegetarian foods than to attempt to build one from animal products loaded with fat, cholesterol, and other substances that growing children certainly do not need. To help draw attention to the problems associated with foods served by the NSLP, dietitians from PCRM graded the nutritional quality of menus offered in ten of the largest programs, in the hope of inspiring menu options built from grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans, which satisfy hungry children and offer the most disease-fighting protection. 

Fifteen days worth of menus for each school were analyzed, awarding points based on whether the institution met USDA standard nutrition guidelines and how frequently it offered low-fat vegetable side dishes (points were not given for French fries, mashed potatoes, tater tots), whole or dried fruit, hot meatless and vegan entrées, and cholesterol-free options. The schools also earned extra points for offering non-dairy, calcium-rich beverages. 

Here are the results:

School District Location Points (out of 100) Grade
Broward County School District Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 85 B
Dade County School District Miami, Fla. 71 C
Fairfax County Public Schools Fairfax, Va. 71 C
New York City Public Schools New York, N.Y. 70 C
Clark County School District Las Vegas, Nev. 66 D
Dallas Independent School District Dallas, Tex. 65 D
Los Angeles Unified School District Los Angeles, Calif. 60 D
Philadelphia City School District Philadelphia, Penn. 59 F
Detroit City School District Detroit, Mich. 57 F
Houston Independent School District Houston, Tex. 57 F

“If we’re going to reverse current trends of childhood obesity and diabetes, we’ve got to get more low-fat and vegetarian meals on the school menus,” said PCRM staff dietitian Jen Keller, R.D. “Kids need more fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains and fewer greasy hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and French fries. Learning how to eat right is a lesson that will benefit them for life.” 

Here’s where you can help. Seek out a few like-minded parents and/or teachers who also would like to impact the nutritional status of the school in your area. Have a planning meeting to set a reasonable goal and stress the need for the committee members to remain respectful of school personnel at all times. Very often, school personnel simply have never given mainstream nutritional concepts a second thought, or they have no experience in plant-based meal preparation, or they do not realize that healthier options are available from their existing Commodities program. Here are some examples of goals for your group: spurring on a school policy wherein student groups sell trees, flowers, fruit baskets, crafts, or other non-candy items for their fundraisers, getting soda pop machines switched over to 100% juice and bottled water, or offering of a veggie burger or veggie dog at each lunch. If your focus is the cafeteria, consider a request for tasty and low-fat options like green salads, mixed vegetables, steamed broccoli, corn on the cob, veggie burgers, bean and rice burritos, veggie chili, and baked potato bars with healthy topping options on a regular basis. 

The next step can be one of three avenues: the students, the parents, or the administration. If your school has an existing appropriate Student Group to approach (i.e.: environmental, recycling, vegetarian, health boosters, etc.) get on their next meeting’s agenda. If not, request time on the next PTA/PTO or school board agenda. 

Be prepared for your presentation. Have one copy of the PCRM Report Card and one cover sheet for each person expected at the meeting. List the following components on your cover sheet: A paragraph delineating main health problems facing children due to dietary intake, 2-3 sentences on a clear goal you have for the school, 2-3 sentences on how you would like to make the specific change, and then your group’s members and contact information. Many groups like the PCRM and are happy to help, so don’t be shy in asking for current statistics or further suggestions. At your meeting, be prepared for questions on the details of your plan, and make it clear that you are willing to personally help make the change a reality in any way possible. 

Finally, have fun with the process. You will find school personnel in nervous laughter who are actually excited about the change and glad someone finally brought the issue up. You will find grateful students teachers and cafeteria workers curious about these ‘new’ foods. Our school district even had a food-tasting day in the cafeteria with voting run by the Student Council to pick permanent future (Vegan) menu options. 

I can also almost guarantee that you will meet at least one individual who will be angry and threatened at your group’s proposal. Well, change is hard sometimes, as we all know. Don’t let their fear paralyze your momentum. Find respectful ways to offer further information or help, and learn to sidestep roadblocks. Remember, even if nothing changes on the menu immediately, you have brought the proverbial skeleton out of the closet, and it will need to be dealt with sooner or later! 

Kerrie Saunders

Author: Kerrie Saunders

Dr. Kerrie Saunders is a Master's level psychologist, Certified Prevention Consultant, and a Certified Addictions Counselor. Her doctorate is in Natural Health, and she is a regular contributor to health-related magazines. Her book, The Vegan Diet as Chronic Disease Prevention, is being published by Lantern Books and will be in stores by January 2003. Dr. Saunders currently consults and teaches professionals and clinic patients through Primary Care & Etc. in Port Huron, MI.

Share This Post On