How healthy is that school lunch?
Eight-year-old Maribel Monroy scored a home run with the healthy lunch she recently brought to school in her San Francisco Giants lunchbox. The majority of her peers across the country typically strike out, though, with the contents of their sack lunches.
A new study conducted by Tufts University found that school lunches packed at home are typically higher in sugar and calories and lower in nutrition than lunches served in school cafeterias. Local students who carry home-packed lunches seem to mimic those findings.
While Maribel and her fourth-grade classmates Alexia Alcaraz and Makayla Garrett each show up with a sandwich and fresh fruit, others are stuffed with processed foods and no main course.
“When deciding what to pack, parents are juggling time, cost, convenience and what is acceptable to their children. Unfortunately, these factors are not always in harmony with good nutrition,” said Jeanne Goldberg, a Tufts University professor and the study’s lead author.
“Lunches were comprised more of packaged foods than anything else. Almost a quarter of the lunches lacked what would be considered an entrée, such as a sandwich or leftovers, and were instead made up of a variety of packaged snack foods and desserts.”
That’s little surprise to Mary Ann Bridant, a noon duty supervisor at Sassarini Elementary School and the mother of three children, one each in high school, middle school and grade school.
“People complain about school lunches, but they’re pretty good,” Bridant said. “The lunches made at school are portioned out and made with specific ingredients. They count calories. It’s all balanced.”
In fact, meals served in Sonoma Valley public school cafeterias meet and even exceed the new federal standards of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
Bridant is in her eighth year monitoring lunchtime behavior and encouraging kids to try everything on their cafeteria trays. She also has noticed the contents of sack lunches from home, with packaged Lunchables, snack crackers and high-sugar juice packs among the popular items.
“One student had a mayonnaise sandwich, and the parents thought it was absolutely fine,” Bridant said. “For ‘fruit,’ he had (store packaged) Jell-O. That was the worst-case scenario.”
Despite her awareness and best efforts, as a busy working mom, she admits her own children don’t always leave home with a perfectly nutritious sack lunch.
“Even in my kids’ lunches there’s more sugar than in the school lunches,” Bridant said.
Maribel, the El Verano fourth-grader, already understands the relationship between good nutrition and good grades.
“If you don’t have a nice lunch at school, you won’t have any energy for the rest of the day,” she said.
Maribel alternates between bringing lunch and eating cafeteria food. On cafeteria days, she benefits from the oversight of Cody Williams, a professional chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and with a resume that includes Napa Valley favorites Mustards Grill and Boon Fly Café.
Williams left the hospital industry last fall to manage Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s food services program, which serves breakfast and between 2,700 and 3,000 lunches daily.
He said he took the job because he “wanted to make a difference” in how and what children eat. He succeeded retiring manager Donna Luzzi, whom he credits with aligning the district’s compliance with federal nutrition guidelines.