Don't Fry the Cook
Food Service Employees Provide Healthiest Meals Possible
"A school's kitchen isn't an area of wondrous bliss
The food that the state sends the school somewhat lacks in appeal
But out of this the cook creates a masterpiece called a meal"
From "Angels with Aprons" by Dave Arnold
The latest epidemic to strike our nation's schools seems to concern overweight kids. The main culprit in this weight-related problem, according to some critics, is school lunch programs.
In other words, students are fat because of the meals they eat in school. I'm not a cook, but I live with one. My wife, Nancy, has been preparing and serving school meals for more than 20 years.
I know from my own experience that school cooks are required to stay within nutrition and health guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (DOA), National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the National School Breakfast Program (NSBP).
Being overweight usually has something to do with the links between physical activity, food choices and personal health conditions. When it comes to student weight issues, I expect that physical education programs along with cafeteria menus take the most heat from armchair school critics.
At many schools, food service employees take the food items they receive from the district and DOA, including items through the surplus food commodity program, and cook their meals. So, are cooks really to blame for obese students?
Not so, according to a study conducted by Dr. Alice Jo Rainville of Eastern Michigan University. Dr. Rainville concluded that students who eat school lunches consume 29 percent fewer calories from fat. The study also found that school lunches contain three times as many dairy products, twice as much fruit and seven times the vegetables as lunches brought from home.
Research by the DOA during the 1998-1999 school year found that 91 percent of secondary schools and 82 percent of elementary schools offered students the opportunity to select lunches that met dietary standards for fat and saturated fat.
According to government standards, school menus in one week cannot contain more than 30 percent of the calories from fat. Menus over a course of one week must also provide one-third of the recommended dietary allowances of protein, vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium. The school cooks who I know live and die by these standards.
The problem with school lunches is not what cooks prepare for breakfast and lunch. The big problem is when schools give in to student demands for salty, sugary, junky food choices, especially those tasty treats that also reap financial rewards for the school.
Yes, some school administrators will offer food choices simply because they are profitable. Some of these alternatives often include vending machine items such as chips, sodas, and candy. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what happens when you give a child the choice between eating a salad or bag of chips.
This isn't new. Junk food has been winning the food battle for decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a recent study that overweight children ages 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past 20 years, increasing from almost 7 percent in 1980 to 16 percent in 2002. Among adolescents ages 12 to 19, the rate more than tripled from 5 to 16 percent.
Many states and local school districts now see more than ever that offering alternatives to NSLP and NSBP creates problems that are unhealthy for students. Many have passed regulations banning vending machines in schools, or switching them off during lunchtime. Schools are also educating students about the links between diet, exercise, stress, high blood pressure and other health matters.
Encouraging students to improve their health is important. So is countering disingenuous attacks on school lunch and breakfast programs which are part of the solution, not the problem.
Something might be wrong with the diet regimen and exercise habits of some students. But you can't lay that on school cooks. Their system works. And when something is working properly, don't mess with it.
(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.
Dave Arnold: This school custodian and former Illinois Education Association ESP of the Year is a published poet. But most Association members know him best from the editorials -- Dave's View --