Students who bring their lunch to school have better dietary habits than those who rely on cafeteria food, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The October study suggested that improving the nutritional quality of foods offered through the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced-cost lunches to public schools across the U.S. through funding from the United States Department of Agriculture, could help improve adolescent dietary behaviors.
According to the USDA, the School Lunch Program provides children with nutritionally balanced lunches, although some health experts disagree.
Katie Strong, a dietician for the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, said the lunch menu for elementary schools within Tempe School District #3 includes many innutritious foods, despite following the guidelines of the School Lunch Program.
“Right off the bat what stands out is the processed meat,” Strong said of the lunch menu, adding that consuming processed meat has been linked with an increased risk for heart disease and certain cancers.
Each day, the menu provides a different meat-centered entrée like chicken nuggets, Salisbury steak or a hot dog, and offers peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and yogurt for the vegetarian option, as well as a side dish like a fruit cup or corn and bean medley. Strong said that although the side dishes are nutritious, the vegetarian entrée is not adequate.
“PB and J is not offering (students) more fruits and vegetables and whole grains and things we know we should be eating more of,” Strong said. She added that providing a vegetarian option is important for overweight kids since research consistently shows that people who follow a plant-based diet tend to be leaner and have less chronic illness.
According to a 2007 report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 31 percent of children in Arizona are overweight or obese. Elli Gawne, a sports coordinator for the Chris-Town Family YMCA, said that outside of school, many of the children she works with are not eating healthy food at home.