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Meryl Ain, Ed.D. Headshot

March Madness: School Lunch, Pink Slime and National Nutrition Month

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The coincidence of a spate of stories decrying the wide use in school lunches of what critics call "pink slime" (ammonia-treated ground beef) appearing during National Nutrition Month got me to thinking about what school children eat for lunch each day.

While healthier eating has become a passionate cause among parents in many districts, it was shocking to recently learn that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had planned to purchase 7 million pounds of ammonia-treated beef for use in school lunch programs. But after a public outcry, the USDA announced that school districts that participate in the government's school lunch program would be allowed to reject beef containing the "pink slime" filler and select filler-free meat instead.

Several U.S. school systems, such as New York City, said they would change their cafeteria menus when the move takes effect next fall. Others, including Boston, decided to remove the ammonia-treated meat immediately. Just this week, production was halted at three of four plants that manufacture the by-product.

The irony of the "pink slime" fiasco breaking during National Nutrition Month makes the issue all the more troubling. Despite years of parents' lobbying for healthier school meal choices, the USDA was prepared to feed kids meat whose safety was questioned by some microbiologists (other experts contend it is necessary to kill bacteria such as E. coli). On the other hand, Nutrition Month® is a nutrition education and information campaign sponsored annually by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The campaign is designed to focus attention on the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits. I wonder how many parents would choose "pink slime."

So how does a parent make informed school lunch choices?

There are two ways. One is to keep after your school district to serve healthier options. But keep in mind that the bottom line in food service programs is making a profit. If the healthy options don't sell, the program will be in the red. A number of districts have instituted healthy lunch programs. An exemplary program is the one in the Port Washington, N.Y. school system. The menu is filled with healthy choices including whole grain pastas, bread, brown rice, baked sweet potato puffs, yogurt, fruit and vegetable salads, turkey, home made soups, tuna, and pita and hummus, to name a few. If your district is not this enlightened, there's another choice -- pack your child's lunch yourself.

I remember my elementary school lunch. My mother invariably packed a sandwich and a piece of fruit -- an apple, orange, or pear in the winter, and a peach or plum in the warmer weather. I remember eyeing my classmates' goodies -- Twinkies, Hostess cupcakes, chips and chocolate chip cookies -- with envy. I had no idea my mother was so avant-garde!

Nowadays, with insulated lunch bags and more varied offerings, you can make your child's lunch healthy and appealing. Here are some tips:

  • Be aware of food restrictions in your child's school, e.g. nut allergies, and respect them.
  • Fill your child's lunchbox with colorful foods from all food groups -- proteins, fruits & vegetables, and whole grains. Consider items such as hard-boiled eggs, berries, grape tomatoes, sugar snap peas, carrots and hummus.
  • Use whole grain breads and crackers.
  • Stay away from foods high in sugar and additives.
  • Cut things in cubes, such as chicken, cheese, veggies and melon.
  • Remember finger foods and dips if you think your child can handle them.

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