Sitting in our Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting yesterday, a question popped into my mind. With all the laudable improvements Houston ISD has recently made to its menu, could a child still become overweight just from eating school lunch? In other words, would a child making seemingly bad choices on the lunch line be somehow “protected from himself” by the menu improvements (e.g., ground beef entrees that now use one-half ground turkey, or dishes that substitute low-fat cheese for full-fat)?
To figure this out, I invented an eight-year old boy, Jimmy, with the average height of 50 inches and average weight of 55 pounds (I got these figures from weight charts issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; given that 40% of Texas children are obese, Jimmy is lucky I allowed him to weigh in as an “average” child.) I decided that little Jimmy is a couch potato, not very athletic and a big fan of video games and computers. Then I went to a site that calculates lazy Jimmy’s caloric needs for the day: 1,426. Ignoring the fact that today’s kids eat snacks – 98% of kids report eating at least three snacks a day, and 50% report eating five snacks a day — I generously allocated 1/3 of Jimmy’s caloric requirements to each meal of the day — 475 calories per meal — so that he could really go to town on the lunch line without exceeding his caloric limit.
Next I pulled up Houston ISD’s August/September lunch menu and let Jimmy go through the lunch line for a single week (week of August 30th), picking what seemed to me to be the worst food choices I could find. Following the guidelines in place in our district, Jimmy had to take one entree, and then could choose up to three other items, including milk. To be fair to the district, I didn’t have Jimmy take every single thing served (although I’m not sure why I made that concession since many kids do take all the food offered.)
Here was Jimmy’s menu for the week:
Monday: Frito Pie (380 calories, 22 grams of fat); mac-n-cheese (38 calories/1 gram of fat); chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat) (total = 568 calories/25.5 grams of fat);
Tuesday: Cheeseburger (340 calories/17 grams of fat); baked fries (124 calories/4 grams of fat); chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat) (total = 614 calories/23.5 grams of fat);
Wednesday: Soft beef taco (524 calories/23 grams of fat): refried beans (123 calories/2 grams of fat): chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat) (total = 797 calories/27.5 grams of fat);
Thursday: Pasta with meat sauce (355 calories/9 grams of fat) that comes with garlic toast (90 calories/3 grams of fat); jalapeno corn bread (no nutritional info available, so I used the district’s dinner roll as a reasonable proxy: 170 calories/9 grams of fat); chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat) (total = 765 calories/24.5 grams of fat);
Friday: Chicken tenders (243 calories/13 grams of fat) served with a dinner roll (170 calories/9 grams of fat); brownie (227 calories/7 grams of fat); chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat) (total = 790 calories/31.5 grams of fat).
Thus, on a daily basis, Jimmy is exceeding his artificially high (due to no allowance for snacks) calorie maximum at lunch by an average of 231.8 calories. Since a pound of weight gain represents 3,500 unneeded calories, an extra 350 calories of food a day would cause a child to gain an extra pound every ten days (350×10). So on this daily diet, supplied by his own school, little Jimmy may not be “little” for much longer.
Now, I’m the first to admit that this is a highly unscientific experiment, and doesn’t account for what Jimmy is or is not eating out of school. (On the other hand, the experiment is generous to the district, in that Jimmy wasn’t permitted to eat any snacks, which is highly unrealistic.) It’s also important to note that current USDA caloric requirements for school food are likely to decrease if Congress passes the pending reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.
But the experiment does make the point, I think, that for all the school food improvements we’ve seen in our district (and I’m grateful for all of them, don’t get me wrong), there are still offerings that permit kids to make very poor selections on the lunch line, selections that may well have an adverse impact on their health down the line.
All the more reason why, in the fight against childhood obesity, we must arm kids with nutrition education. Unlike little Jimmy, we need kids to understand how to make the best choices for themselves, even when their school district isn’t making matters any easier by serving the menu described above.