What's for lunch?

March 21, 2012

Lisa Harper Mallonee, the mother of two children ages 2 and 3, wasn’t happy with the food being served at the preschool they attend. She noticed that sugary snacks and fatty meats were the norm. “They served Cheerios and apple juice at snack time,” she said. “I suggested using string cheese instead of Cheerios and turkey hotdogs instead of baloney hotdogs.”

Lisa Harper Mallonee, the mother of two children ages 2 and 3, wasn’t happy with the food being served at the preschool they attend.

She noticed that sugary snacks and fatty meats were the norm.

“They served Cheerios and apple juice at snack time,” she said. “I suggested using string cheese instead of Cheerios and turkey hotdogs instead of baloney hotdogs.”

It took some work, but Mallonee was able to convince the small school to make some healthy changes in the menu. Mallonee, it turns out, had some impressive credentials that she could cite when requesting the changes. She is a registered dental hygienist and a dietician and is employed as an associate professor at the Baylor College of Dentistry. However, even with such this background, change didn’t happen over night.

Mallonee, along with other experts in the dental and nutrition fields, say schools have generally made great strides in serving healthier foods, but parents still need to be advocates on behalf of their children. 

Those improvements were prompted by concerns over childhood obesity. But the well-acknowledged link between nutrition and oral health is another reason why parents need to be aware of what foods are being served to their children and push for changes when sugary foods and ones lacking in nutrition pose a threat to oral health.

The preschool’s first response to Mallonee’s request for menu changes was to ask her to submit a letter signed by either a physician or a dietician stating that her children could be served the foods she requested rather than those usually offered. Mallonee, of course, had no problem submitting the letter that she signed herself. She also discussed her desire for menu changes with other parents. Eventually, the school took heed of her concerns and changed the menu for all students.

Not every parent, of course, is a dental hygienist or dietician. Nonetheless, Mallonee and Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said there are steps parents can take to encourage schools to provide healthier foods.

Sandon said parents first need to be aware that the foods schools serve can vary widely.

“It can vary dramatically,” Sandon said. “It depends on how lunch is funded. It comes down to dollars.”

Public schools that receive federal funding from the National School Lunch program are required to follow the program’s dietary guidelines. Those lunches are often served to children who qualify for no or low-cost meals.

Private schools, however, are not part of the program.

“They’re not bound by anybody to go by any guidelines,” Sandon said.

In addition to the regular lunch line, both public and private schools may bring in other food service vendors that serve pizza, hot dogs, salads or other foods. These vendors may serve healthy foods, or not.

“If parents are concerned about vendor foods, they need to find out what’s offered,” Sandon said. “They need to go to the school during lunch hours and look at what’s being served and what students are purchasing.”

Though it might be contrary to what parents believe, having their children go through the regular lunch line, rather than giving them money to buy food from a vendor, might be a better option because, at least at public schools, there are nutritional guidelines in place for those lunch line menus. 

“The school lunch line is usually the better choice,” she said.

Parents also should ask if their schools have wellness policies in place. Schools that participate in the National School Lunch program are required to have them. The wellness policies are an important tool for parents and school districts that seek to promote student wellness, prevent and reduce childhood obesity, and providing assurance that school meal nutrition guidelines are met.

To really have an idea of what’s going into their children’s stomachs, parent also need to request the nutritional information for the foods being served.

“You could have a chicken nugget that’s baked not fried, but who would know by looking at it?” Sandon said. 

“There also is some “stealth nutrition” occurring,” she said. “That’s when a school boosts a dish’s nutritional quality by using fruit or vegetable purees instead of white flour or sugar or makes other changes to improve a dish’s nutritional value without letting the children in on the secret. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it doesn’t teach children about making good food choices,” Sandon said.

For parents who think their school needs to make changes, Sandon and Mallonee both advise reaching out to the director of food service or other school leader to make their concerns known.

Even before that, they said it’s also a good idea to connect with other parents or go to a Parent-Teacher Association meeting. Working as a group, rather than as an individual, will likely be more effective.

“A group of voices is usually stronger than a single voice,” Sandon said.

Mallonee, who was able to make changes in the menu at her school, said school officials generally want to do what’s best for children. Parents need to see their role as advocates for better health. 

“Showing parental concern is helpful,” she said. “We’re all looking out for the benefit of children.”