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.

In another recent study of children's eating habits, the consumer group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy said 57 percent of kids 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 these bad habits. 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 federal 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, because produce previously accounted for only 2 percent of USDA-supplied foods.

While Washington works on these adjustments, more schools would do well to follow the lead of Davidsonville Elementary. Last year, the school cafeteria was transformed into a "restaurant," complete with flowered centerpieces on tables and, more important, healthful food choices such as low-fat pizza, salads and baked potatoes. Within five months, the number of students eating meals at the school jumped by more than 50 percent.

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 all too many American kids. Doing lunch better would at least make for healthier school-age children. Indications are that it would make them better students, too.

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