'Pizza Not a Vegetable', Some Schools Say

They say you can't fight City Hall...but in a way, that's pretty close to what some California school districts are doing when it comes to serving healthy foods. Recently, Congress rejected proposed changes to school menus that would have led to healthier choices for students across the nation. But some schools are taking the matter into their own hands.

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healthy school lunches

USDA Denied

In early 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) called for drastic changes in school lunch nutritional standards. The USDA's proposals included increasing the amount of sauce on each slice of school pizza to maintain its status as a vegetable serving, eliminating soft drinks and cutting back the weekly serving of French fries from five days per week to two.

But a spending bill passed by Congress in November 2011 halted the USDA's plans. The department will not have the funds to implement such changes. Congress also called on the USDA to redefine some of its nutritional terms, such as 'whole grains', and to reconsider its position on increasing the amount of pizza sauce per serving.

Past Efforts Paying Off

Efforts made by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy have helped to make legislative changes to school menus over the past decade or so. For instance, in 2003 a bill was passed that placed a soda ban on elementary, middle and junior high schools throughout the state. A similar bill for high schools was created two years later. Limits on fat and sugars and regulation of portion sizes were targeted in a 2005 bill.

Having this legislation in place has helped some California school districts work around the rejection of proposals put forth by the USDA to implement healthier food choices and make changes to food standards in schools across the United States. These districts have already been offering salad bars and organic foods to their students. Some are even making meals from scratch!

Paving the Way

In California, despite the national definition, pizza sauce does not count as a vegetable. And by providing 'cooking camps' that train cafeteria staff to prepare fresh meals, adding yogurt and homemade oatmeal to morning menus and installing salad bars, California does more than any other state in the country when it comes to supplying nutritional foods for students.

Amy Kalafa, author of Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children's Health, applauds those districts bucking the national trend. In a recent Huffington Post article, Kalafa stated, 'Why wait for Congress to dictate? The more model programs we can create, the more we can demonstrate that this could be the norm for all.'

In a Healthy State Without Breaking the Budget

Best of all, these school districts are not spending lots of money to offer more nutritional foods. For instance, Santa Barbara Elementary and Secondary School Districts are paying half the cost for organic lettuce as compared to non-organic and paying less than half for food bought directly from manufacturers instead of distributors. The schools also see a savings in buying fresh meat and poultry rather than processed food and also by buying fruits and vegetables that are in season.

The efforts are paying off more than financially. One of the districts, the Los Angeles Unified School District, won the 2011 Golden Carrot Award from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The award, established in 2004, names a winner and runners-up for food service organizations who do the most to improve the health of school lunches.

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