Study shows healthy school lunches don’t cost more

Aug. 23, 2012, San Antonio Express

By Don Finley and Lindsay Kastner

In 2006, three middle schools in the San Antonio ISD made some radical lunchtime changes.

They took french fries off the menu and cheese off the burgers, added baby carrot sticks and more whole grains.

Even the breading on chicken nuggets got the whole grain treatment.

The result?

According to a national study that included the three schools, providing healthier school meals doesn’t have to cost more.Those were the latest findings from a San Antonio-led national study of 42 middle schools across the country that two years ago found better cafeteria offerings and improved physical education could reduce obesity rates for children at highest risk of diabetes.

Dr. Roberto Treviño, principal investigator of the federally funded HEALTHY study, said an analysis showed cafeteria profits at schools offering healthier lunch lines actually were a bit higher — although not statistically different.

“Good food makes money sense,” Treviño, director of the Social and Health Research Center in San Antonio, said at a news conference Aug. 22 at Rhodes Middle School, which took part in the study.

The childhood obesity epidemic has focused a lot of attention on the quality of school food.

Of 50 million students in public schools, 32 million receive free or low-cost lunches under the National School Lunch Program, and 12 million get breakfast through the program.

And while state and federal rules already have raised the bar for healthier meals and snacks at school — and this new school year will raise it even higher — federal funds have not kept pace.

One recent study found the government paid $2.57 per meal under the free lunch program, while the cost of producing that meal was $2.92.

“All school districts are looking for ways to be healthier and offer healthier options,” said Sally Cody, food service director for SAISD. “Since the study ended in 2009, we’ve continued to increase whole grain offerings. We’ve increased the fresh fruit and vegetable offerings, offering fresh fruit at breakfast. We allow students to take an extra serving of fruit and vegetable at lunch, in addition to what’s required by the regulations.”

The HEALTHY study focused on middle schools in low-income neighborhoods across the country, where at least half the students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Half the schools had to meet nutritional goals that included reducing fat, offering more fruits and vegetables, and eliminating high-calorie desserts and sugared beverages. The other schools did not.

In the end, those schools offering healthier meals saw an average profit of $3.5 million over the three-year study, while those that didn’t had a profit of $2.4 million — a difference the researchers said was not significantly different.

In Harlandale ISD, which was not a part of the study, spokeswoman Leslie Garza said the district began offering healthier meals about three years ago, with changes like swapping in whole grain breads and cutting out vending machines.

“The healthier options are tied to an increase in revenue,” Garza said. “Because the kids like them, they pick them up and eat them.”

She said the district’s meal program has an 80 percent to 90 percent participation rate, and its nutrition services department runs in the black.

But Garza said it’s hard to tell how kids’ palates will react to the new government mandates, including one to phase in sodium reductions, which could change the taste of food.

North East ISD already has begun implementing the new regulations at its year-round school, Castle Hills Elementary.

“It’s going fantastic,” spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said.

The district is also set to add vegetarian options at all campuses this school year.

“We don’t expect it to cost additional funds because we make a lot of our items from scratch,” Chancellor said, adding in most cases existing recipes will simply be modified to cut out the meat.

In neighboring North Side ISD, officials are also trying to offer healthier options, including fruit at every meal. Its website emphasizes how the district’s meals are nutritious, eliminating fried foods, and including lean meats, whole grains, fruits and vegetables and portion sizes determined by age groups.

Treviño said the math is a little complicated when it comes to improving cafeteria food. While some costs might be a little higher, schools that eliminated sugary drinks and high-calorie desserts actually saved money.

“When we removed the desserts and the snacks with greater than 200 calories, it also meant less expense for the schools,” he said.

In San Antonio, Irving, Longfellow and Rhodes middle schools in SAISD improved their meal offerings, while Tafolla, Connell and Poe in the same district were part of the comparison group.

“We’ve found that kids like the baby carrot sticks,” SAISD spokeswoman Leslie Price said.

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