Hopefully, much less than 90 percent of Americans will be overweight or obese by the year 2030. Regardless, Americans are getter fatter by the minute and there could be dozens of factors. I decided to look at public school lunch menus from the two fattest states and the two thinnest states, according to the CalorieLab United States of Obesity Fattest States Ranking 2008:
So the matchup is Mississippi & West Virginia vs. Colorado & Hawaii. Maybe the problem isn’t with the school lunchs. Both of the two ‘fattest’ states seem to be trying to fight childhood obesity. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation summarizes a recent newspaper article on steps Mississippi schools have taken to promote healthy eating at school:
In an effort to comply with state regulations slated to take effect this fall, several Mississippi school districts have revamped their cafeteria menus and curricula to promote healthy foods and physical activity, the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger reports. Amid evidence that Mississippi has the highest childhood obesity rate of any state in the country, the Healthy Students Act of 2007 limits the sale of sugary drinks and junk foods in schools, mandates fitness tests for fifth graders students and strengthens high school physical education requirements. The Madison County School District has responded by nearly eliminating french fries from lunch menus and, despite the increased cost, switching to low-fat salad dressing. The district also has stopped selling ice cream in favor of fruit slush. The Rankin County School District is working with staff to incorporate health and wellness concepts throughout the school day and no longer will sell candy as a fundraiser. Jackson Public Schools have rearranged classes to encourage more physical activity. The Clarion-Ledger notes that some students have fought the changes, even circulating a “bring back the french fries” petition. But school officials are hopeful they will eventually embrace the changes (Helmes, Clarion-Ledger, 8/3/08)
In 2002, from West Virginia’s Dept. of Education:
“We are very proud of our lunch program in West Virginia,” said State Schools Superintendent David Stewart. “Each day public schools across the state serve more than 180,000 students healthy, well-balanced meals. School lunch is a long standing tradition in America, supporting education, children and families.”
Now for the menus, selected from random towns in the four states. The prices are all similar $1.25-$2.00 for full price, but who knows how much taxpayers actually contribute. Bold are seemingly innovative and healthy choices.
‘A complete lunch includes a choice of entree; two or more fruits and/or vegetables; bread; and milk.’
Entree: salad of the day, smoked sausage, hamburger, pizza, chicken nuggets, beef-a-roni, corn dog, fish fillet, lite turkey on wheat, chicken fillet, country fried steak, sloppy joe, hot dog, bbq pork, lasagna, ham & cheese on croissant, whole grain corn dog, chicken tetrazzini, lite turkey & cheese wrap, red beans w/ sausage, roast beef on croissant, taco salad, burrito, fiestada!
Choice of sides: plenty of fruits and vegetables (turnips, collared greens, Mexican corn, to name a few), only 2 days/week have fatty desserts
Conclusion: A lot of standard lunch fare here, but attempts have been made to revise the entree choices. I’m not sure that a whole-grain corn dog is healthy though. Hopefully children choose proper side dishes. Good to see the fiestada lives on. The fiestada, for example, has 410 calories and a good deal of sodium, but also has 17g protein and some iron, calcium, and vitamin A.
‘All meals are served with low-fat white or chocolate milk.
All lunches include condiments, fresh vegetables and fresh fruit.’
Entrees: salad, garden salad, hamburger, hog dog, mini corn dogs, reuben & soup, chicken patty, macaroni & cheese w/ dinner roll, pizza, egg rolls, grilled cheese & soup, country fried steak, burrito, steak & swiss burger, pork patty on bun, grilled pita club, chicken nuggets, ravioli, chili cheese wrap, ham & cheese on pretzel bread & soup, meatball sandwich, turkey dinner day, taco wrap, spaghetti w/ meatballs, fish sandwich
Sides: a fair selection of fruits and vegetables
Conclusion: Still plenty of old favorites, but like MS, there are some improvements. Plenty of good fruit/veggie options, but once again, the students need to make good choices.
‘Meals are planned in accordance with USDA Guidelines. Lunch meets 1/3 of the RDA’S.
We have moved away from:
High fat, saturated fat & trans-fat products
High sugar products
Milk is offered with every meal
Check with your school for breakfast availability
Entrees offered Daily: Burrito, PBJ & Yogurt, Cheese & Muffin Basket
Some of the healthy choices we’re serving on a daily basis:
• Reduced fat pizza , Deli meats made from turkey and breads containing whole grains
• Baked chips instead of fried’
Entrees: steak strips, macaroni & cheese w/ roll, beef & broccoli bowl, grilled cheese, beef soft taco, spaghetti, sweet & sour chicken, hamburger, oven fried chicken, enchiladas, bbq pork sandwich, chicken teriyaki, fish sandwich, italian dunkers w/ tomato soup, turkey sub, chicken caesar salad, green chili cheese potatoes, corn dog, chicken quesadilla, ravioli, chicken nuggets, shrimp & chicken basket, calzone, egg roll, chef salad
Sides: not listed
Conclusion: A few more modern choices than MS or WV, but still plenty of standards. The difference seems to be the well-defined goals of the program and the emphasis on diverse entrees.
‘Lunch: Choice of Menu Meal or Choice Sandwich Line’
Entrees: hamburger, beef burrito, oven baked chicken, kalua pork w/ spinach, breaded chicken, taco burger, roast turkey, chili, meatballs w/ gravy, chicken sticks, nachos w/ chili, chicken pasta w/ vegetables, creole macaroni, turkey ham sandwich, battered fish, beef stew, chicken nuggets, oriental chicken, bbq chicken pizza, spaghetti
Sides: lots of rice, good fruit choices, no fatty desserts?
Conclusion: This district has plenty of inspired selections. Meatballs w/ gravy cannot be a healthy entree without the help of some nutritious sides. In general, a very appealing menu, and the lack of desserts is worth noting.
Bottom line: The schools all provide healthy options, but it is up to the students to make wise decisions. The two schools from ‘thin’ states provide a more interesting and adult selection of foods, which may be slightly more healthy than traditional fare.
Note: I never fully appreciated the school lunch until high school. Up to that point, I always brought my own lunch (which was probably better balanced anyway). Of course, during high school, I would eat whatever was on the menu. I skipped the butter wheel on the optional bagel, but I indulged in plenty of Fruit Jammers and Cosmic Brownies, Fudge Rounds, and Oatmeal Creme Pies. My metabolism allowed it, and I would run 6 miles a day. These days, school food menus are at their healthiest since mid-century, when hamburgers weren’t too common, and even chocolate milk was frowned upon during school hours. Who knows if children are genetically fat or if their parents feed them improperly out of school. Exercise is paramount to prevening obesity.