Nutrition, Business At Odds in U.S. School Cafeterias

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Pizza, tacos and onion rings — just another balanced lunch in many school cafeterias across the Unites States. If given a choice, most kids won't opt for the broccoli. And financial constraints are keeping many school districts from doing away with more popular — but more fattening — choices.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Many parents of middle-school or high-school students notice that their kids' cafeteria operates much like a food court.

(Soundbite of cafeteria noise)

Unidentified Woman: The most popular item is pizza.

Unidentified Girl #1: Like the Pizza Hut pizza. That's really, really good.

Unidentified Boy #1: Chick fillets.

Unidentified Girl #2: Pizza Hut pizza.

Unidentified Boy #1: Yeah, Pizza Hut, tacos.

INSKEEP: The lunchroom in many schools is a business, and that business is the subject of today's health news. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports the customers are not making many nutritious purchases.

ALLISON AUBREY reporting:

Peggy Lee has been administering school lunch programs long enough to remember the days when ladies in hair nets and stockings didn't ask you what you wanted to eat. They simply put it on your tray. That's the way it was when she was a kid.

Ms. PEGGY LEE (School Lunch Administrator): And I remember sitting in a cafeteria in elementary school and I didn't want my peas and I put them in my milk carton beca--and tried to hide them because the teacher wouldn't let me go until I'd eaten all my peas. And I didn't want my peas.

AUBREY: A lot's changed. These days, in many places, kids decide what they want to eat, and many cafeterias are run like businesses. Take one of the schools Peggy Lee oversees, Great Bridge Middle, in Chesapeake, Virginia.

(Soundbite of cafeteria noise)

Unidentified Boy #2: What I have for lunch is pizza, fries and three ketchup packets and strawberry milk.

Unidentified Boy #3: Two chick fillets, fries, some chips, milk, chocolate milk and a grape juice, 100 percent vitamin C.

Unidentified Boy #4: Potato wedges and spaghetti and fruit cocktail and chocolate milk.

AUBREY: How come I don't see any fruits and vegetables?

Unidentified Boy #5: Because I like, like, pears and stuff like that, you know, but I don't like to have the...

Unidentified Boy #6: I know. I...

Unidentified Boy #5: ...fruit over here. It looks nasty.

Unidentified Boy #6: Their fruit is rotten.

Unidentified Boy #5: Yeah, it's rotten.

Unidentified Boy #6: The fruit is old. I mean, we pay for this food.

Unidentified Boy #5: I know. We should get the best.

AUBREY: In fact, the fruit on the serving line was not rotten. It all appeared to be fine. As the seventh-graders held forth, student Chris Gregory noticed one of the teachers passing the table opening a package of Twinkies and popping one in his mouth.

CHRIS GREGORY (Seventh-Grader): I mean, what's up with that? I mean, he's not eating healthy either. He's not--he doesn't have a salad. So why should we have to eat healthy? We're supposed to look up to our teachers, but, like, they're eating like HoHo's and stuff and Twinkies. What should we do?

AUBREY: To Peggy Lee, all of this provides good insight into teen-agers' minds.

Ms. LEE: They're getting a little freedom. They're getting a little, you know, power they feel they have over themselves in their lives and they exert that. You know, sometimes they don't make the best choices. But you know what? They don't make the best choices about a lot of things.

AUBREY: If so many kids make such poor choices, why not go back to the old days, the ones Peggy Lee remembers, where you had to stay at the table until you ate your peas? Perhaps cafeterias could offer just one healthy, well-rounded meal a day. Take it or leave it.

Ms. LEE: We can put all that food on the plate. We can make that plate look very attractive and very nutritious. They're not going to eat that food if they don't want it. You tell me how I can make those middle-school sixth-graders out there eat green beets. How many kids did you see sit out there today with nothing? Nobody's making them eat.

AUBREY: When Peggy Lee was hired to run the food service in the Chesapeake schools, one of her first mandates was to start bringing in more revenue. The federal government provides money for low-income students and some food staples. The state of Virginia kicks in funds as well, but Lee says it's not enough to keep her cafeterias open.

Ms. LEE: The school division doesn't provide us funding through the general budget. It's like running a small business within an educational operation.

AUBREY: `And to be successful in the food business,' she says, `you can't serve customers things they don't like'...

Ms. LEE: Kids are brand-oriented and they know that Pizza Hut is a quality product, and so we do use a lot of brands. In my menus, you'll see Tyson Chicken, sea-packed shrimp poppers.

AUBREY: ...along with lots of other items that kids are happy to pay extra for, such as baked chips and oversized cookies.

Ms. LEE: We don't embrace the philosophy that there's good food, bad food. Every food item that we offer on our menus is nutritious, even French fries. There's nothing wrong with French fries. If you eat them every day and that's all you eat, there is something wrong with that. So we want to try to offer a variety.

AUBREY: Twice a week the school offers lower-fat potato wedges instead of fries. Fruits and vegetables are sold daily, as well as salads and low-fat milk. These items help Lee comply with the federal government's nutrition guidelines at least on paper, but what's clear is that many children are not making healthy choices.

Ms. LEE: The habits that they have formed are not a result of something we have done or haven't done in school meals. It's a result of things that have happened long before they ever got to us at five years old or six years old.

AUBREY: As more states come to grips with high childhood obesity numbers, lawmakers have seized on the idea of school nutrition laws. At least 18 states are currently considering legislation. Some call for tossing out soda machines. The Connecticut House last week passed a ban on junk food in schools, and in Kentucky, a new law will limit Pizza Hut in the cafeteria to just one day a week. But the city of Buffalo, New York, is taking a different tact.

Unidentified Radio Announcer: If it's new, you heard it here first, 93.7 WBLK, K...

AUBREY: With the support of Buffalo's popular radio station, corporate leaders in the town are putting their money behind an ambitious experiment in nutrition education.

THE MAGIC MAN (WBLK): ...remind you that if you are a power eater, of course, we want you to tune in, and all this week, you are a power eater and you just never know. You might be a guest deejay. You might even win something.

AUBREY: WBLK's afternoon host, The Magic Man, is one partner in the experiment.

THE MAGIC MAN: Remember, fruits and veggies rule. Less than five a day is uncool.

AUBREY: At Buffalo school number 45, the mantra has sunk in quickly.

Unidentified Class of Students: (In unison) Fruits and veggies rule. Less than five a day's uncool.

AUBREY: In the lunchroom, the power eater's program is basically a contest. Kids who take extra fruits and vegetables each day are eligible for prizes at the end of the week. Teacher Kathy Lubeck helps keep count.

(Soundbite of cafeteria noise)

Ms. KATHY LUBECK (Teacher): OK. Wait a minute, sweetie. He didn't take any fruit which means...

Unidentified Man #1: OK.

Ms. LUBECK: ...which means he does not get marked...

Unidentified Man: Right.

Ms. LUBECK: ...but the two vegetables are OK.

AUBREY: Lubeck says the hope is that kids will learn to make better choices.

Ms. LUBECK: And the whole idea is no one's standing over them saying, `You must eat that piece of broccoli or else.' You took it. You tried it. Even if maybe you picked it up, that's enough. It's exposure. Some of these kids have never seen this stuff before.

AUBREY: And they've certainly never had nutrition education as part of their curriculum. With so much of the school day focused on preparing students for standardized math and reading tests, nutrition has been edged out. This is a trend nationwide, but not in Buffalo's fourth-grade classrooms. Teacher Denise Vasser(ph) says it's a matter of teaching kids what's at stake.

Ms. DENISE VASSER (Teacher): Why is it important to eat healthy foods, Christian?

CHRISTIAN (Fourth-Grader): Because if you eat fat and greasy foods, you could get over weighted.

Ms. VASSER: Right. Because obesity in adults and children--so we should eat lean meats, lots of fruits and vegetables. Anyone else?

Unidentified Boy #7: Or it could cause diabetes.

Ms. VASSER: Right. That's right. It can cause diabetes. Very good.

AUBREY: It's unclear if the program will pay off, but the lunchroom in Buffalo is different than most. It's less a business, more a classroom, at least for the moment. On the financial side to make this happen, business leaders had to invest in the nutrition program. Mike Cropp is CEO of Independent Health, a large insurance provider. He says the thinking is that illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes, can be prevented through early education.

Mr. MIKE CROPP (Independent House): One of the things that we're excited about is: How has this changed the level of awareness of the kids within the school? It's very hard to change habits and change behaviors, but it's a lot easier to introduce new habits and new choices than to stop the old ones.

AUBREY: And the consensus is you've got to do that while they're young, so by the time they're old enough to be customers they make better choices.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

THE MAGIC MAN: And what school do you go to?

Unidentified Boy #8: Eighty-two.

THE MAGIC MAN: And being a power eater is cool, right?

Unidentified Boy #8: Yeah.

THE MAGIC MAN: What's your station?

Unidentified Boy #8: BLK.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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