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Pittsburgh Channel 4

February 17, 2004



Western Pennsylvania consistently ranks poorly in national obesity studies. And we all know that obesity starts in childhood.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says 80 percent of the nation's schools serve lunches that have more fat and saturated fat than is allowed by the government's own limits, so Team 4 tracked down the numbers for fat content in local school lunches.

Ellen Haas, chairman and CEO, "Kids are eating lunches that are too high in fat, too high in saturated fat, and unhealthy."

Jen Keller, RD, nutrition projects coordinator, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: "When it comes to the main entrees, the featured entree selections, they still look very much like fast food."

Team 4 has done the research on the hard numbers on fat content in school lunches for every district in Allegheny County.

Federal law requires schools to keep fat content at or below 30 percent of total calories. Saturated fat must be at or below 10 percent of calories. But most school districts in Allegheny County fail to meet those requirements, according to the most recent inspections by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Keystone Oaks' school lunches had the highest fat in the county—43 percent of calories from fat and 12 percent of calories from saturated fat. Remember, the limits are 30 percent and 10 percent.

West Allegheny was second highest at 40 percent and 11 percent.

Other chart-toppers include Deer Lakes, Wilkinsburg, West Jefferson Hills, Cornell, South Allegheny, Plum, Pine-Richland and Fox Chapel.

In fact, only four school districts met the 30-10 requirements.

Penn Hills had the lowest-fat lunches, followed by Northgate, Gateway and North Allegheny.

Nutrition experts say school districts are partly to blame for unhealthy school lunches, but they say the U.S. Department of Agriculture is also at fault.

Haas: "That's why there's really a responsibility on the part of the Department of Agriculture to pick leaner meats to provide to schools, and the same with cheese."

Haas was undersecretary of agriculture for President Bill Clinton. She fought for lower-fat, government-subsidized commodities in school lunches.

The USDA spends almost $1 billion a year buying up surplus commodities, like beef and cheese, from farmers and offering them for free or reduced prices to nutrition programs, including school lunches.

Haas lost the battle to reduce the fat.

Haas: "Politics got in the way, and the politics of the dairy farmer and the cattleman is really a lot stronger than the individual consumer."

Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff spent a week last September telling schoolchildren that the USDA should allow high-fat butter to be used in the national School Lunch program.

Wolff: "My job is to be an advocate for agriculture in Pennsylvania."

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., is a different kind of advocate: a pro-vegetarian group that grades school districts around the nation on the nutritional content of their lunches.

Team 4 asked PCRM to grade 10 randomly selected school districts in Allegheny County.

Keller: "They could all be doing better."

PCRM looked at menus over a two-week period. They handed out Ds and Fs to all 10 school districts. A major factor in those grades was the districts' failure to pass their latest state fat-limit inspections.

All 10 districts claimed that they have come into compliance with the fat limits since their last inspection, so PCRM gave the districts the benefit of the doubt and issued a new report card. Instead of Ds and Fs, most of the grades were changed to Bs and Cs.

At the top of the list is Hampton.

Keller: "I know in Hampton they have four or five different varieties on a daily basis of baked Lay's potato chips."

Baldwin schools got the lowest score: a D-plus.

Keller: "Baldwin didn't do as well as other districts because their selection of vegetarian items on a daily basis is limited to a bag lunch of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a piece of cheese."

Some school districts and their food service contractors were critical of the PCRM report card.

Lori Loughner, Nutrition, Inc.: "This obesity issue wasn't created overnight. And it's only one meal a day. School lunch is getting a bad rap. It's one meal a day. What happened to the other meals? You have 21 meals in a week including snacks."

But Haas says, like it or not, schools that get federal commodities and subsidies for their lunch programs have a duty to cut the fat—and parents have a duty to make sure it's happening.

Haas: "The more parents get involved at their local level in their school, the more changes we're going to see."

What happens when districts fail to meet those fat limit standards? Essentially, nothing. The state Department of Education only performs the inspections every five years, and when a school district fails the fat test, there's no enforcement to ensure compliance. That's why it's important for parents to be involved.

When figuring out grades, PCRM looked at whether a school district offers the following: an alternative vegetarian entree at least once a week; calcium-fortified juice; salad bar; and a daily low-fat vegetable side dish.


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