School Lunches Come Under Fire : State Legislation Aimed at Reducing Fat and Cholesterol Content in Meals

Times Staff Writer

State legislators have taken aim at the fat and cholesterol content of school lunches with a bill designed to reduce the potentially harmful compounds in meals served to California students.

Legislation calling for the new dietary guidelines for school food service programs last week passed the state Senate by a 32-0 vote. A slightly different version was approved earlier by the Assembly. The bills will now be reconciled by the Legislature before being sent to Gov. George Deukmejian for consideration. If enacted, the measure would be the first of its kind in the nation.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-S. San Francisco), requires that the state's Department of Education establish maximum intakes of compounds such as saturated fat and cholesterol for school lunches.

No more than 30% of the total caloric intake of school-age children should be from fat, according to several federal advisory panels such as the National Research Council.

Elevated Cholesterol Levels

The state's new program, which would become effective Jan. 1, was prompted by Speier's concern over a recent study that indicated as many as 37% of those California fourth-graders tested had elevated blood cholesterol levels.

"In March, during National Nutrition Month, I went to a local grammar school in my district to have lunch with the children. And we dined on Tater Tots and corn dogs. They're foods loaded with fat and cholesterol," she said. "If we want to raise healthy kids to healthy adults, then we need to become more aggressive in preparing meals in school that are healthful."

Speier said that recent research indicates that poor eating habits developed by children often carry over into adulthood. A lifelong high-fat diet could be especially troublesome because it is considered a risk factor for heart disease. Elevated cholesterol levels have also been linked to increased incidence of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

Nutritional deficiencies in the school lunch program are not restricted to California. A report issued last week by a Washington-based consumer group was highly critical of the nutritional content of meals being served to the nation's school children.

Public Voice for Food & Health Policy randomly surveyed, via questionnaires, school food service professionals nationwide in order to assess attitudes about the fat content of meals served to students. The vast majority of those queried, or 80%, said that fat content needs to be reduced in the children's meals.

'Critical Dietary Change'

"We chose this focus because of the strong consensus among health professionals that intake of fat is the single most critical dietary change needed by individuals two years of age and older," said Ellen Haas, Public Voice Executive Director. "In recent months we have seen important documentation of this in reports from the surgeon general, the National Academy of Sciences and a number of newly reported scientific studies."

Many of those who responded to the Public Voice questionnaires laid the blame for the fat problem, in particular, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The agency spends more than $4 billion to subsidize school meals throughout the country. More than 24 million children at 91,000 schools receive some form of federal assistance.

Yet, much of this aid comes in the form of surplus agricultural commodities such as ground meats, butter, cheese and eggs, each of which is considered high in fat or cholesterol. Schools, particularly those in middle- to low-income areas, depend on these free commodities in order to operate their feeding programs.

"Many of the products that come to the schools (from USDA) are not of interest to the student population," said Speier.

Varying School Lunches

A USDA spokesman said the agency has made several efforts to vary the foods served in the school lunch program and also lower the fat, salt and sugar content of the meals.

For instance, only lean ground beef, with a 22% fat level, can be used in the program, said Gene Vincent, a USDA public affairs officer.

The agency has also attempted to incorporate more chicken, turkey and fish into the feeding program, he said.

The USDA has not set maximum fat levels for the diets of children because there is still some scientific dispute over research on the subject.

"There is no scientific consensus on appropriate levels of fat in children's diets, said Scott Dunn, acting administrator for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. "Moreover, it is important to remember that no matter what level is deemed appropriate, that level must be applied to a person's entire diet, not to a single food or a single meal. USDA cannot at this time support setting quantitative fat standards or recommended frequency of serving certain foods."

Survey Findings

Public Voice, in its 35-page report on the survey, made several recommendations to the USDA in order to improve the school lunch program. These include:

--Have the agency set a maximum level of fat in school lunches at 30% of total calories.

--Educate school food professionals about how to reduce dietary fat in meals.

--Make lower-fat commodities from government surplus programs available to schools.

--Increase spending on nutrition education in the classroom. Such funding has been reduced or eliminated in previous years.

The group also urged the food industry to work in conjunction with the federal government and local school officials to develop nutritious lunch items that would be popular with children.

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