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How To Make School Lunches More Nutritious: Re-Define Words

If you are a parent of a child who attends public school in Washington, and if you have even a vague recollection of the food pyramid, you probably will have noticed that the lunches that are served in school cafeterias are frequently at odds with the rules of good nutrition. The school is not wrong, however. They have just re-defined words and you are not keeping up.

Pop quiz: Cheese belongs to what food group?

*bzzz* - wrong. You said that cheese was in the diary food group, right? No! Pbth! How boringly accurate of you. Cheese magically transforms into a protein when it is served on pizza or in a bread stick!

I know that you may be dubious, but I contacted Wendy Barkley, RD,  who is the Acting Supervisor of School Nutrition Programs in the State of Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and she assured me that it is so. To quote her email to me:

"Pizza remains an option for schools for their menus.  The cheese on pizza is counted as a protein in the meat/meat alternate group.  This is the same for the breadsticks [sic] with cheese inside."

Perhaps some background is in order. This year we received a full-color letter in the mail telling us how school lunches were going to be so much healthier this year as a result of a new, USDA program. In the first week and a half of the new school year, my son's school served cheese pizza twice - or tried to serve it twice. The first time they ran out and substituted cheese sticks.

Now, I am not a registered dietitian, but I can read, and in addition to the Healthier School Day Web site, the USDA also has a page that explains what a protein is, and they go on to say that protein foods should be low in fat. Cheese, which is high in fat and also listed as a dairy food, is not present on the protein foods page.

I contacted the State and received a friendly email from Ms Barkley that let me know that I and the USDA are incorrect, and that cheese is actually a protein in those cases where we really, really wish it to be (my wording, not hers). Confused by this, I emailed the USDA "Healthier School Day" people to ask them to clarify this magical new property of cheese of which I was formerly ignorant. I also sent Ms Barkley links to the food pyramid site and asked her to explain the magic of cheese. If they reply, I will post an update.

For me, the final straw in the school lunch issue was last week when my son came home and told me that he was given the choice between a fish sandwich, or a big pretzel for a lunch entree. This makes me think that despite all of the talk about childhood obesity, the people who make the menus have just given up and are now just serving snacks. I told my son that he needed to start taking his lunch so he can be certain of a balanced meal, but some kids don't have that option because they have to rely on free lunches, and sometimes even free breakfasts. For the kids that rely on school food for 2 meals per day, we really should be ashamed that we have decided that cheese sticks and big pretzels are substitutes for protein.


The (Acting) Supervisor of School Nutrition Programs in the State of Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction  got back to me today:

On Wed, Sep 12, 2012 at 4:52 PM, :
Hi Tod-

My Plate has replaced the Food Guide Pyramid.  Standard nutrition information does show that foods like cheese and yogurt are in the dairy group.  My Plate is used quite a bit for school meals.  However, for school meals we follow the USDA meal patterns for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs.  These meals are component based; milk, meat/meat alternate, grain, fruit, and vegetable.  For the purposes of the NSLP meal pattern, the milk component is only fluid milk.  Therefore we count yogurt and cheese as meat/meat alternate. 

Thank you-


Oh, well, that clears it right up. Except that she is not entirely correct. If you go to the MyPlate Web site and actually follow the links to the guidelines - and read them - you will find some rather different information on pages 38 and 39. The dairy section recommends *against* using cheese as a major way to get dairy because it is usually high in fat. The protein section has one sentence that says that there is some protein in milk and milk products, but it certainly does not say that schools can serve cheese sticks if they run out of entrees. Oh - and the educators page on the MyPlate site has links to the Food Pyramid teaching materials in the "kids posters" section. So except for being wrong on every point, she is entirely correct.


Dale said…
I remember you telling me about your dad straightening out the school cafeteria. I guess the apple, which might also be counted as a protein under the right conditions, hasn't fallen far from the tree.
Dale said…
I remember your telling me about your dad straightening out the school cafeteria. I guess the apple, which might also be counted as a protein under the right conditions, has not fallen far from the tree.
Unknown said…
On days where we couldn't make a lunch for our daughters and offered to give them money to buy a school lunch they've refused saying they would rather come home starving than eat the "gross food" at their public school. Sad, but true.
Unknown said…
The last person was obviously hedging with these two statements: "My Plate is used quite a bit for school meals. However, for school meals we follow the USDA meal patterns for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs." Which is it?
Unknown said…
Sadly, the USDA does say that cheese and yogurt do not count as dairy (at the end of this doc:

And this doc lists cheese as a "Meat Alternate":

But then this doc, pp 65 & 66, list cheese in the dairy category, not proteins:

Cheese does contain protein (8g in cheddar: but it seems to me to be a stretch to call it a non-meat substitute.

And note that most of these docs have "input" from some or other dairy group. Wtf?

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