The school lunch program in the Pinellas County (Fla.) school district has earned a perfect 100 percent score for providing students with a healthful and nutritional meal, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
The committee’s 2012 School Lunch Report Card, which evaluated meals served in 22 districts across the nation, concluded that compared with its last report card in 2008, schools are providing students with more healthful food choices.
“It’s clear that food service professionals are making an effort to provide students more healthful lunches,” the report says. “The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is a great starting point for lowering the fat in school lunches and adding more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”
The best efforts are taking place in Pinellas County, the committee found.
“Pinellas’ high score reflects its varied menu, which boasts many healthful low-fat vegetarian entrées five days a week,” the committee says.
Pinellas County also allows students to select as many fruits and vegetables as they like at each meal; reducing the price of a la carte fruits and vegetables by 50 percent led to a 30 percent increase in spending on fresh produce.
The Pinellas County grade is the first time a district has received a 100-percent score from the committee, which has released eight Report Cards since 2001. To earn a perfect score, a district must:
- Meet U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards for fat and saturated fat
- Offer a healthful vegetarian entree daily.
- Have at least one vegan option—an entrée free of eggs, meat, and dairy—available each day and serve a variety of vegan options.
- Serve at least one serving of fresh fruit and a low-fat vegetable side dish daily.
- Provide a nondairy beverage to all students and provide nutrition education in the cafeteria, as well as offer programs that promote healthful eating habits.
Other districts that received an A-plus in the latest Report Card: Howard County, Md., Knox County, Tenn., and Omaha, Neb.
On the other end of the spectrum, no districts received an F, but five districts received a D or a D-plus: Houston; Davis, Utah; Fresno, Calif.; Burlington, Vt.; and Milwaukee, whose score of 64 was the lowest for 2012.
Among the reasons for Milwaukee’s low grade: Vegetarian entrees are served only once or twice a week; no vegan entrées are available; and the district’s cafeterias and menus do not offer education on the benefits of a plant-based diet.
The district with the most improved grade was Washoe County, Nev. Its 2012 score was 22 points higher than the 2008 Report card—rising from a D (66) to a B+ (88).
Overall, the committee found that schools are serving an increasing number of healthful vegetarian and vegan entrees: 59 percent of the districts surveyed serve at least one vegetarian option every day, and of these schools, 76 percent offer a vegan entree. Seventy-seven percent of school food service departments offer nutrition education, and 95 percent of districts offer additional nutrition programs, such as farm-to-school programs.
Still, the committee finds fault with USDA regulations that allow districts to “serve high-fat, high-cholesterol foods regularly and do not require school districts to offer any plant-based entrees.”
“One longstanding barrier to schools serving more healthful meals is the USDA’s commodity foods program, which distributes large quantities of unhealthful ‘entitlement foods,’” the committee contends. “Every year, the USDA purchases hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pork, beef, and other high-fat, high-cholesterol animal products.”
Many of those products become the hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken nuggets that are served in school cafeterias.
“The USDA’s distribution of unhealthful products helps explain why it can cost a school district more than twice as much to provide a high-fiber, low-fat veggie burger instead of a high-fat, fiber-free hamburger,” the committee says.
The committee urges all school systems to step up their efforts to fight childhood obesity by serving meals with more low-fat vegan entrées, eliminating processed meats, and educating children on the benefits of a plant-based diet.
LINK: View the grades of all 22 districts that took part in the 2012 School Lunch Report Card.