Let's Do Lunch -- Better

November 30, 1993

Too much fat. Too much sodium. Too few fruits and vegetables. Not enough of certain vitamins.

Sounds like a meal at the local pit beef stand, doesn't it? Unfortunately, the above description is taken from a U.S. Department of Agriculture report on school lunches nationwide.

The study released last month found levels of fat and sodium in school cafeteria fare that far exceed the government's dietary guidelines. In another recent study of children's eating habits, the consumer advocacy group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy said 57 percent of youngsters ages 6 to 11 eat less than one serving of fruit daily, and 32 percent eat less than a serving of vegetables a day.

The federal government has too long ignored or pooh-poohed these bad habits. (Remember when the Reagan administration tried to push ketchup as a vegetable?) But new USDA Secretary Mike Espy and the new director of the department's school lunch program, Ellen Haas, are out to make some needed changes. Last month, Ms. Haas began a four-city series of hearings on ways to make lunches healthier. In addition, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has introduced a bill that would charge the USDA with distributing more produce and low-fat dairy products to schools, require school meals to meet dietary guidelines, and enable schools to ban the sale of junk food on their premises.

Ms. Haas, a former director of Public Voice, has already announced that the USDA will double the amount of fruits and vegetables it provides to schools. That's a step in the right direction but a tiny one, given that produce previously accounted for only 2 percent of USDA-supplied foods.

While Washington works on these adjustments, some school systems have already acted to revise their lunch schemes. In Howard County schools, for example, food services supervisor Mary Klatko has overseen a shift in recent years toward a more balanced and nutritious menu that meets federal guidelines and pleases kids. The USDA recognized Ms. Klatko's efforts last month with a special citation for creative menu planning.

Nutritionists swear on their cook books that a child's work in school is linked to his or her diet. Perhaps there's more of a connection than we realize between the gloomy findings of the recent USDA study and the poor academic performances of too many American kids. Doing lunch better would at least make for healthier children; indications are it would make for better students, too.

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