School Lunches Not All Healthy

With Child Obesity Epidemic as a Backdrop, Island Schools Begin Paying More Attention to Lunchroom Nutrition

By IAN FEIN

On any given school day, students at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School are likely to eat a rather sophisticated lunch - featuring Japanese seaweed salad with tofu and rice wine vinegar, for instance, or Island-grown butternut squash soup. The healthy meals are made almost entirely from scratch by a professional chef who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London and Paris.

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Across town, students at the West Tisbury School eat lunches outsourced to a nationwide food service company, which cooks the meals at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School and trucks it to West Tisbury in the morning, where it is later reheated by school custodians. On Wednesday this week the warm meal consisted of a slice of cheese pizza, a pile of corn, iceberg lettuce salad and a cookie.

Such is the disparity among the different school lunch programs on the Vineyard, which have varying levels of funding and support.

With childhood obesity emerging as a national health crisis, school lunch nutrition is the subject of increasing attention. The Centers for Disease Control says that at least one in three children born in 2000 will have diabetes in their lifetime, and because of nutrition issues, young children today are set to become the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

Although the obesity epidemic is a part of a much larger trend of unhealthy eating and lifestyles, school lunch programs play an important role in the discussion because they are the only nutritional option for many growing children.

"Some kids have no choice in the matter. They don't have parents with the time, money or knowledge to make a healthy lunch for them," said Tina Miller, a private chef and author of the Vineyard Harvest cookbook, who has two children enrolled at the West Tisbury School. "My kids are lucky, because I can do that for them. But there are many, many children on the Vineyard that rely on these school lunches. And that's what I find disturbing."

A graduate of the West Tisbury School herself, Ms. Miller is now a member of the school advisory committee, where she has made improvements to the lunch program a top priority.

"School is not just a classroom. It's social, and it helps form habits that you will carry through for the rest of your life," she said. "Healthy eating and nutrition are just as important for kids to learn as everything else. But for some reason, it's been overlooked."

Ms. Miller and others agreed that all the Island schools are stepping up efforts to provide healthier lunches, and that, on the whole, Vineyard children and adults are better off than their counterparts on the mainland, who have much higher documented rates of obesity.

But despite growing awareness about the issue, school health officials face an uphill battle. A statewide youth behavior survey found that between 1999 and 2005 the percentage of overweight adolescents rose to more than 25 per cent in Massachusetts, while the percentage of students who eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day declined to only one in ten.

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A longtime teacher at the Edgartown School said last week that the Island has not been entirely shielded from the trend. "We're definitely seeing a lot more kids who are not just a little overweight, but really dangerously obese," she said.

Pending legislation in the Massachusetts state senate would set strict new standards for removing junk food from school cafeterias in the commonwealth. Also, by state mandate, each school committee on the Vineyard this year adopted a new wellness policy, which spells out goals to provide students and staff with nutrition education and access to a variety of affordable, healthy and appealing foods.

State efforts only go so far, however, as the vast majority of food offered to local schools comes from unhealthy, surplus commodity crops subsidized by the U.S. Farm Bill, which is currently up for its five-year reauthorization in Congress. On recent lists of food offered to the Vineyard charter school between April and June, the only item described as fresh was a 50-pound bag of russet potatoes.

"It's a real challenge," said Christine Napolitan, food service director at the charter school for the last ten years. "The state is pushing local school programs to use fresh produce and whole grains, but most of the food they give us is prepackaged stuff like canned fruit in corn syrup, or chicken nuggets and preseasoned sloppy Joe mix."

Ms. Napolitan uses some of the options offered by the state, but then buys about 75 per cent of her food, including all her fresh fruits and vegetables, with additional money provided by the charter school. The extra funds allow her to buy Wholesome Farms milk instead of the Hood brand distributed at other schools, and to offer a full vegetarian option available at every meal.

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Charter school founders saw a progressive lunch program as a key priority for their school. Between bites of a whole wheat burrito at his desk on a recent Friday, school director Robert Moore said that in his nine years at the charter school he has never heard a single complaint about the lunch program from a student or parent.

Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss acknowledged that budgetary constraints limit the quality of lunches offered at the other five public schools on the Island.

"Cost is an issue, and given the limitations we have, I think all of our schools do an excellent job," Mr. Weiss said, recalling a bowl of corn chowder he had at the Edgartown School which he described as phenomenal. "But without casting aspersions on anyone, there's always room for improvement."

Currently, the three down-Island elementary schools employ cafeteria staff in their own kitchens, while the two regional school districts contract with the large national food service firm, Chartwells, to run their lunch programs. The on-Island company representative cooks hundreds of lunches at the high school each morning, and trucks meals to the smaller schools in Chilmark and West Tisbury, neither of which have full kitchens.

Though school officials praise the company for its responsiveness to requests and concerns about the lunch program, they also admit that it is not an ideal arrangement. Only about a quarter of the 270 West Tisbury School students eat lunch offered by the school, compared to roughly 75 per cent at both the charter and Edgartown schools. A recent student-initiated lunch survey at the high school found overall satisfaction relatively high, but recommended that nutritional information be posted about the food, and that unhealthy foods like french fries, cinnamon sugar, pizza and cookies be more expensive and offered less frequently.

Improvements to the West Tisbury program have been a priority for school officials this spring, and will result in a number of modest changes when school reopens in the fall. Smaller portions will be available for the younger students, and hot soup will be ladled from a large tureen, instead of being stored in individual Styrofoam bowls as it is now.

Ms. Miller said she would eventually like to see a full kitchen in the school, where fresh meals can be prepared from scratch. But she acknowledged that would require renovations and ongoing staffing salaries, which is money that the school does not currently have. Ms. Miller noted that while other schools on the Island allocate between $50,000 and $100,000 for cafeteria staff each year, West Tisbury spends roughly $3,000 - and still had to make cuts elsewhere this year to win approval of its budget.

"It's a process," Ms. Miller said of improvements to the school lunch program. "Things don't change overnight."