Do South Bend School Meal Programs Make the Grade?

By Stefany Jones, Dietetics Intern, Purdue University

The National School Lunch Program provides meals for over 30 million children in the US every day.  Everywhere you look, school meals have come under more scrutiny by the media, parents, students, and those concerned with the health of our youth. Recently, Newsweek issued a “Back to School” feature article highlighting school lunch deficiencies and improvements across the country, and just last week, the South Bend Tribune featured “Send the School Menu to Detention”, written by a seventh grader concerned with the fat content of meals at LaSalle Intermediate Academy in South Bend. Wanting to know more, I set out to interview some of the people involved in meal planning and preparation, as well as observe and experience, for myself, some of our local school meal offerings.

I first stopped at Monroe Primary to observe their breakfast program and to tour the facility with Karen Case, Nutrition Facilitator for South Bend Community Schools.

As I entered the cafeteria, the smell of citrus greeted us. Tables full of students and breakfast trays brimming with milk, oranges, cereal, and breakfast sandwiches filled the room. Moving along to the breakfast line, children began assembling their meal by choosing a carton of milk from boxes of low fat, fat-free, white and flavored milks. Reduced-sugar versions of kids’ favorite cereals, like “Frosted Flakes” and fiber-containing “Total Raisin Bran” were also available. Instead of cereal, students could choose a breakfast sandwich consisting of half of an English muffin topped with an egg, turkey Canadian bacon, and reduced fat cheese. Finally, breakfast-eers could choose a fruit in fresh form or as 4 oz. of calcium and vitamin D fortified 100% fruit juice. Behind the scenes in the kitchen, not a fryer was in sight! “Not a bad breakfast!” said my dietetics intern inner-voice.

On to lunch.

I then ventured on to LaSalle Intermediate Academy for lunch. First, I grab my fat-free milk. Hmm…today’s entrée choices? Filet of fish on a whole wheat bun (tartar sauce, optional) and beef tacos (Karen said that all beef is well drained of fat before it’s included in an entrée). Not being in the mood for either of those, I opted for a pre-made romaine-blend salad (offered daily) topped with chicken, shredded reduced-fat cheddar cheese, and reduced-fat Ranch dressing. Next, I grabbed an apple from the basket loaded with 4 different fresh fruits daily.  Then, it was time to sit, eat, and mingle with Karen and the kids!

Periodically, school meals are analyzed by a state agency Registered Dietitian for adherence to the USDA’s strict nutrition standards for school meal programs. And how did South Bend’s program measure up? “We were a bit low on calories…our fat content was only slightly over the 30% fat requirement, but our saturated fat fell below the requirement, which is great!” said Karen. Among the school lunch program’s recent improvements, “We’re now offering more fresh fruit and vegetables instead of just canned, and we’re incorporating more whole grain breads.”  Karen says she’s currently working with dairy processors to lower the sugar content in their flavored milks. “We’re always striving to improve the nutrition of our menu offerings,” she adds.

In my opinion, breakfast and lunch both offered tasty and healthy menu options.  What grade would the students give the lunch program? One LaSalle Academy fifth-grader said, “I’d give it an ‘A’ or ‘B’.”

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