Schools across York County offer salad bars and whole grain bread at lunch. Dietitians lead nutrition lessons urging children to make “healthy choices.” Some schools even let students take a second trip through the lunch line for extra helpings of fruits and veggies.
Such efforts are promising, but nutrition advocates say menus dominated by processed, fast food fare undermine those noble attempts and leave school meals a long way from healthy.
New federal rules, which start taking effect this year, are meant to improve school food in the long run. They require schools to double the amount of fruits and vegetables served, increase whole grains, serve only low fat or fat-free milk and limit trans fats. By 2022, schools must cut the amount of sodium served in half.
Most York County schools are well on the way to meeting some of those rules, food service directors said. They serve fewer fried foods and offer more fruits and vegetables. Pizza crusts and burger buns are whole grain. Cheese and milk are low fat. Corn dogs are actually turkey dogs with “whole grain breading.”
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Still many meals include processed, pre-packaged products resembling what’s typically served at drive-through windows – precisely the type of food health advocates urge children to steer clear of.
“Continuing to model a fast food menu at school helps create preference for fast food,” said Sonya Jones, deputy director of the University of South Carolina’s Center for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities. And “processed meat in any form is not healthy.”
Processed foods considered unhealthy generally contain preservatives and excess sodium and saturated fat.
Multiple studies have linked processed meat consumption to chronic illnesses like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer.
A 2010 study by the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that eating processed meats such as bacon, salami, sausages, hot dogs and deli meats can raise the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
The findings suggest the high amounts of “salt and preservatives ... might explain the higher risk of heart disease and diabetes seen with processed meats,” researchers concluded.
Food service directors said they understand the concerns, but are hampered by tight budgets and picky palates.
“You’re trying to serve nutritional food, but you’re also trying to run a business,” said Chad Mitchell, food service director for Rock Hill schools. “If you go across the country, half to 75 percent of our menus are the same products. We all have chicken nuggets, chicken sandwiches, burgers and pizza.”
Attempts to offer healthier options frequently flop, food directors said.
“The problem is you can make them as healthy as you want, and you feed the trash,” Mitchell said.
Some turn to what they assume children prefer.
“We try to look at what the fast food companies serve and do it in a healthier way,” said Sandra Brackett, food service director for the York school district.
Fort Mill schools have gone the farthest in pushing healthier meals.
Food service director Roland Cabading has added a variety of salads and cut back on snacks and drinks served “a la carte.”
Cabading’s menus boast squash casserole, veggie lasagna and whole grain pasta shells stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese.
Kitchen staff bake meat loaf and bone-in chicken from scratch.
“It’s in the best interests of the students,” Cabading said. “I would like to think I’m helping the education process.”
It’s been an uphill battle.
The share of Fort Mill students eating lunch in the last two years has dropped from 55 percent to 49 percent.
Trays of stuffed shells and veggie wraps go uneaten. On days when baked chicken and meat loaf are served, students leave notes in comment boxes requesting chicken nuggets instead.
Facing an ‘epidemic’
In a nation where about a third of adults and 17 percent of children are obese, South Carolina is among the heaviest.
As of 2010, according to the Center for Disease Control, 31.5 percent of South Carolinians were obese.
The CDC calls it an “epidemic.”
Eat Smart, Move More York County, a group advocating healthy lifestyles, recently analyzed weight and height measurements for 75 percent of Rock Hill schools’ third- and fourth-graders.
The results, Eat Smart Director David Keely said, are “astounding.”
About a quarter of the students are obese. Another 17 percent of children in both grades are overweight.
“That means 41 percent, or more than two out of every five children participating in the survey, are either overweight or obese,” Keely said.
“Now that we know where we are, it’s time to get parents and the community to take some reasonable and affordable steps to provide children with as healthy meals as we can,” said Keely, a Rock Hill physician.
“Some of the changes that might come about are going to require parents voicing their concerns and requests. When there’s enough of a voice, that should hopefully be heard by the school board.”
Eat Smart, Move More is working with other school districts to gauge obesity rates among students.
Federal officials say schools can play a crucial role in reshaping the nation’s health.
American obesity was a driving force behind the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new rules for school meals, USDA Spokeswoman Jean Daniel said.
“Children learn their eating and exercising habits early in life,” she said. “We really view school meals as an opportunity to reinforce healthy eating habits.
“We have encouraged schools to move away from processed food.”
While that’s yet to happen, the new rules require schools to significantly curb the amount of sodium and eliminate trans fats within 10 years.
That’s intended to push food companies to improve their products, Daniel said.
School food service is a business in which success is measured mainly by how many students eat and what they avoid or toss in the trash.
Most districts have their own food department intended to run as a non-profit, self-sustaining business. Some districts – including Clover and York – outsource meal operations to private companies.
Through the National School Lunch Program, the USDA reimburses participating districts for each meal: $2.77 for low-income students receiving free lunch; $2.37 for students paying reduced price; and 26 cents for students paying full price.
Rock Hill schools food service had expenses of $6.87 million last school year, according to district figures.
Local food directors design menus and order food vendors and a list of 180 USDA commodities.
Directors said they want to offer healthier entrees, but are operating within the system they’re given.
“You just don’t have the staff” to pound fresh beef into patties, said Brackett in York. “You’ve got 4,000 students that are going to eat that hamburger.”
Still, directors said they’re offering more fruits and vegetables than ever.
When possible, the food’s fresh.
Rock Hill schools have served asparagus, kiwi and blood oranges while in season.
But canned vegetables are common. With an entree of “beef dippers” – small processed beef patties the same shape as chicken nuggets – elementary students in February got a side of canned green beans, canned pears and boxed mashed potatoes reconstituted with hot water.
The potato flakes were processed with preservatives. According to the package’s nutrition information, a serving contains more than 20 percent of the recommended daily intake of sodium for children. With the other items on the plate, students got more than 65 percent of the daily sodium recommendation.
Students have mixed feelings about lunch.
“I like to get the chicken sandwich,” said Rileigh Glasgow, a South Pointe High sophomore. “It's like a Chick-fil-a sandwich, but school. The okra is good.” But “I will never eat the wraps or corn dogs. The wrap tastes like dried, gross meat.”
South Pointe senior Catherine Allen sticks to subs, salads and chicken sandwiches.
Asked why she doesn’t eat anything else, Allen said: “I feel like it's not real meat. I wish they had more fresh ingredients.”
Hope and collards
Even though shifting tastes has proven tougher than he hoped, Fort Mill’s Cabading is standing fast – even if that means relying on reserves to make up for lost revenue.
With the school board’s blessing, he plans to continue limiting the appearance of pizza and burgers on elementary menus. He wants to introduce new vegetables and cook more entrees “from scratch.”
Gold Hill Elementary this week is testing a new web application that crunches nutrition values for lunch offerings and pinpoints the healthiest combination. Students loading up trays with those items get to ring a bell for recognition.
Cabading said he’s encouraged by small victories.
Collard greens, for instance, were new to the menu this year and went uneaten for months. But students are starting to chow down.
Cabading thinks it could take students their elementary career before they’re accustomed to a healthier menu.
“It’s going to take time,” he said. “The kids here like their processed chicken.”
He’s right to hang in there, said Jones, a USC nutrition expert.
Research shows that children typically must taste something six to 10 times before they’re comfortable with it, Jones said.
To make that happen, she urges educators to get creative.
Have a celebrity chef drop by for demonstrations and lessons, she suggested. Or have children plant an edible garden and then harvest the fruits and veggies.
“Children need the opportunity to learn to like a wide variety of foods,” Jones said. “If we fill them up on chicken nuggets, they don’t have opportunities to taste other foods.”
A trip through an elementary lunch line is a reminder of how tough it can be to take on tweaking tastes.
Dozens of Belleview Elementary students in Rock Hill scuttled through the lunch line one February afternoon, most passing on the new turkey pot pie with peas and carrots for the cheeseburger and fries.
Those are among the biggest sellers, server Carol Hinson said, along with hot wings and pizza.
“That’s what they like,” Hinson said. “We love our cheeseburgers and hot dogs and things like that. This is America.”