Saturday, March 24, 2018
When my oldest first entered Kindergarten, I was determined she would continue to eat the healthy meals I prepared for at home. It wasn't long before she noticed the differences between school lunch and my packed lunches and she started begging for cookies, ice cream, pizza and chicken nuggets like everyone else. No big deal, I thought, plus I was too busy. Back then I was going back to school to get my masters and studying to become a registered dietitian. I caved and let her buy lunch once per week and whenever I got rushed in the morning. Then I started to join my daughters, once every couple of weeks for lunch at Oakview elementary in Franklin, TN. Then after graduating and becoming licensed to practice in TN, I accepted a job there as a cafeteria worker in Nov 2016 and many things changed. I'd love to stop packing lunches all together and just let them make good choices from an array of good options but that was not to be.
Most of my kid's friends buy lunch. While many parents and children complain about the quality of the food, I'm sure that the school system cannot afford much better. They spend about a dollar on food cost in the average school lunch. Some other states get higher reimbursement rates. For schools who have 60 percent or greater lunches served free or reduced price, an additional $.02 reimbursement is given for each free, reduced price or paid meal served. Williamson county will not fall into that category. I wish there were other way to get more money for the best possible foods. The Dietitian for Williamson county schools advised me to join the national SNA to be a part of advocacy efforts. I never did. I said that I was too busy but that I would advocate for better nutrition in my daily job.
The margarine they put on their baked potatoes back then had trans fats via partially hydrogenated oils. I’ve observed my daughter’s friend put 5 margarine packets on her potato. That was an anomaly. They are only supposed to get 2 packets but that's not the only awful thing they serve. The cookies were often prepackaged with hydrogenated oils. Trans fats should be banned from the public schools. I checked the Williamson Co School lunch website to make sure trans fats are not also in the frozen fries and nuggets too. It looks like they are free of trans fats but I would say they are still relying too heavily on processed foods. The FDA has essentially banned trans fats by taking them off the GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) list. I have this problem as a girl scout leader as well. I wrote an email to the Little Brownie Bakers (the company that makes our girl scout cookies) about my concerns about the trans fats that are still in their cookies but their reply did not indicate that they would be taking the trans fats out of their recipe anytime soon. In 2015 the FDA set a 2018 deadline for all food manufacturers to remove (not reduce) partially hydrogenated oils ie artificial trans fats from their food. This gave them three years to eliminate artery-clogging artificial trans fats from the food supply. This legislation is expected to prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease every year. The ingredient is essentially banned. I felt like the Little Brownie Bakers are dragged their feet a bit. Most companies had already complied. Plus I just don't want to feed unsafe food to my loved ones. The girl scout cookies are now free of trans fat right at the 2018 deadline. The schools may or may not be. I got my pediatrician to write a letter to the Food Director of Williamson County Schools demanding that they stop serving trans fats. Every doctor and the NP in her office signed it.
It took me 3 months of working at Oakview to convince the Cafeteria Manager and the Williamson County Food Director to buy different trans fat free butter cups. You're welcome kids but only the kids of Oakview. If your children go to a different school in Williamson County then they may or may not be eating artery clogging trans fats everyday. They only way to know for sure is to go to the school and check the labels on the foods. Each individual cafeteria manager has the autonomy to order different/better food. Getting rid of the trans fats butter was my only real accomplishment the whole time I was there. Not true. I also made a lot of pretty little salads. I reminded a lot of kids to make half their plates fruit and vegetables. I'd say the fruit and vegetable intake went up by about 10% when I was there.
The Oakview lunch room has an excellent array of fruits and vegetables available to the kids at every meal. I am sure the fruits and vegetables are adequate. The choices can be balanced if the kids make good choices. We did encourage them to get a fruit or a salad with their protein. My girl says she “has” to get a fruit or vegetable, and that it is a “rule.” This is the implementation of a policy called "offer versus serve." It is a good policy that allows students the opportunity to choose at least 3 different food group menu items and at least one of them has to be a fruit or vegetable. That way they have to have one on their plate but not so much that the food waste is a problem. The lunch ladies don't get pushy about it. The best thing about the food being served is the variety that they can get there. That being said, they can get variety. That doesn’t mean they will. Especially since, along with a variety of nutritious vegetables and entrees, pizza and chicken nuggets are almost always available, each at least once a week, for the picky kids. Anywho, it appears their school's food policies are in fact aligned with national standards for fruit and vegetable consumption. The National School Lunch Program provides school children with 1/3 or more of their Recommended Daily Allowance for key nutrients. The lunches must serve no more than 30% of calories from fat and less than 10% from saturated fat. That is for sure right on target.
I admit that I do not serve up much variety in my packed lunches. I used to give my girls a sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat, with organic chocolate milk, a fresh fruit and a yogurt almost every school day. We were super careful for years about peanuts/treenuts because my youngest had a verified diagnosed nut allergy. Long story short - she grew out of it completely but I still just pack sunbutter for fear of cross contact for other kids. I vary the fruit, flavor/brand of yogurt, and the type of sandwich, with cheese, or a granola bar, or crackers and toppings but I usually just get throwback when I change it up too much. Once, I made them a “homemade lunchable” because they want lunchables like their friends, but they were not impressed. Apparently, lunchables come with oreos. My homemade lunchable did not come with oreos. I've branched out a bit over the last 4 years. Now I am proud to say that my big girl eats black beans and cheese for her protein once a week. For a little variety, Ling Ling Potstickers are my little one's favorite lunch. Too bad they do not make them with whole grains. She is unknowingly eating cruciferous vegetables (the cabbage inside) so I guess I let it slide. I think I actually send too much food. As it is, she has 25 minutes to eat and she doesn’t eat it all. She usually comes home with half eaten fruit or totally uneaten yogurt. I am either sending too much or she doesn’t have time to eat because she is socializing.
One way that the schools pad their budgets is to sell ice cream. I don't even think kids need dessert at lunch time, period. On the other hand, I understand many children in the school lunch program have to obtain the majority of their calories from school. It does have some calcium and possibly needed calories. For these reasons, I would hate to take ice cream away from a disadvantaged kid. However, it teaches kids to eat when they are not hungry as a reward for eating other things they may or may not have been hungry for. I don't know the answer to this. Ice cream provided at lunch does give some calcium albeit only 7% RDA at the most which is needed when most kids don't get enough. It is a national shortfall nutrient. According to the Dietitian for Williamson county schools, "Only 1 out of 4 girls age 9-18 get enough calcium in their diet according to the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee."
My girls are in a good percentile for both height and weight, so I do not worry about them too much. There are no visibly overweight children in my daughter’s whole class. I’d have to look at their growth charts to know. I will never judge anyone especially children. I do promise you, I did work to improve their nutrition for proper growth and development. A 2011/2012 survey found that about 33% of children in TN are either overweight or obese and adults are much worse. These kids are watching us like hawks. I try and remember that when I make my own lifestyle choices.
Like I said before, there is a lot of room for improvement. I do not have organic tattooed on me but you can buy a ton of delicious sustainable stuff around here. If produce is local and organic, the schools should be offered that item first! I would like to push for better less processed proteins. I would love to try to incorporate more whole grains. For unknown reasons, they serve hamburger and curly fries or pizza every week. There is something in nugget form every week. They do get some whole grain from the nugget breading. First there are the beloved chicken nuggets, the next is fish nuggets, then popcorn chicken, and lastly chicken patty sandwich. Why do our children’s good lean proteins have to come breaded and fried? They don’t have to necessarily like it like that. I think my girls actually learned to like most of those things at school not at home. Children are so malleable at this age. I told the Dietitian of Williamson County that maybe they could learn to like some nice grilled chicken/fish or maybe once a week they could have a vegetarian option. She said that she put my ideas on her inspiration board. Last week I saw that they had some delish grilled chicken with their tacos. However, it looks like pizza or mac and cheese are still the only vegetarian entrées they make although my daughter would love to just eat beans whenever and wherever. They do serve beans as a side item and when I worked there, I told all the kids how healthy they are and "great choice!" if they chose the beans. The meals are still heavy in sodium. They never did comply with Michelle Obama's plan and now with the new administration they no longer have any incentive whatsoever to improve. The fruit cocktail is in syrup not juice last I checked. I do not think there is any need for the kids to eat dessert at lunch. Children are generally pretty good at managing their calories. If left alone they will eat almost exactly down to the kcal of what they need. Unfortunately, except in the case of pica, their bodies do not tell them when they need more essential micronutrients. So, when you give them the option of desserts, they will choose the high calorie, sugary cookie, at the expense of more nutrient dense foods. They shouldn’t offer cookies next to apples. The new thing is little chocolate donuts. Ridiculous. Yes, I noticed they have half whole wheat flour. That does not make them okay.
I found a better job as a health coach only 3 months after starting at Oakview's cafeteria. I quit on good terms. Then when I was laid off of the health coaching job, I found an excellent part time job as a consultant dietitian for a behavioral health hospital which I'm still doing. Williamson County's school dietitian moved on to a better job too. I applied for her job as soon as it opened up but got no response from my resume and application. Maybe they found someone who cares less passionately about getting rid of trans fat. I still eat with my little ones from time to time. I have opened my own business. FoodScienceGal.com