Is School Food Too Healthful?

Is School Food Too Healthful?

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

If you’re tuned into the fights in Washington over school food these days, you might think students are eating nothing but lentils and kale.

Last week, the Senate agricultural committee voted to ease 2010 standards (limiting salt and requiring more whole grains) backed by Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. And later this year, the House of Representatives is expected to propose similar changes.

So that got me wondering: Have the new rules really changed school food that much?  And what do the most popular entrees look like here in Obama’s home district?

Despite six months of requests, Chicago Public Schools officials have refused to let me see a cafeteria. But I’ve talked to lots of students about what they’re eating, and then I went the official route with a Freedom of Information Act request to CPS for the top entreés it serves.

Turns out both efforts got the same answer. The top three dishes served in the district are—by far—highly processed, heat and serve chicken patties, cheeseburgers, and pizza.  And that’s under the nutrition rules considered overly strict by a lot of Washington lawmakers. 

I also scrutinized a list of ingredients for each item. They didn’t look overly strict and healthful to me, but I wanted to be sure. So I took them to Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietician and author. She looked over the ingredients listed for the pizza, chicken patty and cheeseburger served in Chicago schools. Blatner said she was impressed by the partial use of whole grain flour in the buns and the breading on the chicken patty. She also approved of the fat grams in burger and chicken dish. But that’s pretty much where her admiration ended. She didn’t like the meat fillers (soy protein concentrate) in the “chicken” and “beef.” And, generally, she said the foods violated a rule she uses with clients called “cut the CRAP.”

CRAP’s an acronym for Chemicals you don’t cook with at home, Refined sugars, Artificial flavors and sweeteners and Preservatives.

“So do I see CRAP in all of this?” she said. “Absolutely. Those are, to me, red flags that this is processed foods and definitely not something that should be an everyday occasion for anybody of any age.” 

Yet most of those entrees are being served every day to high schoolers and several times a week to grade school kids.

Chicago chef Sam Kass led the First Lady’s Let’s Move health and nutrition campaign that championed the 2010 rules.

I asked if Chicago’s Top 3 list of chicken patties, pizza and cheeseburgers surprise him: “No that doesn’t surprise me,” he said.  “I think what we know about that cheese pizza is that the crust is whole grain and the same with the bun of the burger. There is a lot less sodium and fat in the cheese and pizza.”

Still, these aren’t the dishes Kass was dreaming of when he pushed for the rules six  years ago.

“Obviously the goal is to get our kids foods that are minimally processed and that are really healthy for them. So yes would I love to see just a chicken breast as opposed to a highly processed patty with lots of stuff in it. Of course. And a lot of districts are already doing it.”

These other districts are in places like Washington DC,  New York and Oakland, Cal.,  where pilot programs are helping kids swap processed meals for freshly cooked food.

It’s worth noting that Chicago schools also do some fresh cooking. Local cooks make things like broccoli and other vegetables. But, as part of a weird district rule, they’re forbidden from ever using even a crystal of salt on that food. Intentionally or not, this ends up leaving a lot more room for salt in the processed foods—without blowing the federal limits on sodium per meal.   

I asked Kass if he thought this was a bad use of salt overall?

“Yes,” he said. “For the love of God, salt the broccoli! I think this shows what can come when we do more of the cooking ourselves… We can dramatically reduce the amount of salt in the burger patty and make sure that broccoli tastes good.”

But moving from processed foods to more scratch cooking isn’t easy. Most school food watchers agree it requires, at least, three important elements: school kitchens outfitted with the right equipment, a staff of trained cooks and a strong directive from the top to make the change. In a cash-strapped district like CPS, scratch cooking advocates are unlikely to find those elements. 

While there is some federal funding available for kitchen equipment—including loans and grants specified in the Senate proposal—most agree it’s not enough. National funds designated for 2016 school kitchen improvements add up to a mere $30 million. A recent Pew study estimated that it would take $200 million to outfit kitchens for healthier cooking in Illinois alone.

Buried in Chicago Public School’s 900 page contract with Aramark is this provision that forbids the use of salt in any meal preparation. Some believe this puts the salt-free vegetables at a disadvantage against the salty highly processed foods that dominate the menu. It also allows the processed food to be served without exceeding federal salt limits for the whole meal.  (WBEZ/MONICA ENG)

While rural districts are often able to pull off freshly cooked meals, Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association says it’s tougher in city schools.

“Quite often—especially in urban areas where the cost of labor is high and infrastructure can be old—schools simply don’t have the labor or equipment to scratch prepare,” she said. “So they are required to serve pre-prepared items.”

Heavner’s group is leading the charge against current rules. The SNA represents school food service managers and is sponsored by big food companies, which she says are there to help.

“Food companies are really working to try to develop cleaner label items and to help schools meet these standards,” she said noting that many of the items the companies develop to meet school food rules end up in grocery stores. These include the “better for you” whole grain, reduced fat Flamin’ Hot Cheeto.

Where Congress will eventually come down on salt levels, whole grain percentages and vegetable frequency remains unclear. But what does seem clear is that the current debates are unlikely to get processed foods off the center of the plate in Chicago Public Schools any time soon.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ food reporter. Email her at Follower her @monicaeng.