In the first part of her story, Julia went to a high school, ate the school lunch being served that day, and took notes of what the students were eating - whether they are school lunch, brought something from home, bought fast food off-campus, or ate from the school's vending machines or snack stand. She then worked with a dietitian to analyze the nutritional information for each lunch option. Here's what she learned:
"I had lunch at Dimond High School... I weighed my options with an adult eye for nutrition. Hot dog (salty). Soft taco (mystery meat factor high). French fries (par-fried, reheated). Pizza (greasy). Burrito.
OK, burrito. Beans. Cheese. Tortilla.
HOW BAD COULD IT BE?
Later, I took pictures I'd taken of student lunches to Karol Fink, a dietitian with the state, to see what the food looked like nutrition-wise.
Before I met with Fink, I looked up some of the fast food kids were eating. I assumed it would be the worst, so it could function as a baseline. The 10-piece chicken nuggets, medium fries and Coke from McDonald's I saw a very slender girl eating? That packed more than half a day's calories (1,050), three-quarters of daily fat intake (48 grams, or equal to about half a stick of butter), more than half the recommended daily allowance of salt (1,270 milligrams or about half a teaspoon) and 58 grams of sugar, or about 14.5 sugar cubes. The double slice of pizza and Crush? In the neighborhood of 600 to 800 calories, 25 to 30 grams of fat, about 1,600 milligrams of sodium (more than McDonald's!) and 39 grams of sugar.
Fink and I started with food that wasn't part of the school lunch program. From the school store, we looked at the smoothie. It was high in Vitamin C, but the sugar content was extra high: 49 grams. That's more than a regular soda (which the district no longer allows to be sold in schools ). The Cup-o-Noodles wasn't fantastic in the fat department (14 grams), but the bigger problem was the salt: 1,434 milligrams. That, too, was more than the entire McDonald's meal.
The lunches that came from home tended to be relatively decent. Here's one Fink liked: peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread. Around 300 or 400 calories, about 14 grams of fat and 10 grams of protein. Add in a 200-calorie low-fat yogurt cup, 90-calorie granola bar, a small 150-calorie bag of potato chips, 100-calorie juice box, and a pear, you get about 900 to 1,000 calories. That's a lot of calories, but less than 30 percent comes from fat, overall it isn't high in salt and it has calcium, protein and fiber. And, it wasn't all highly processed food. Fink would probably trade out the chips for pretzels or pita chips to make it healthier.
Then we got to the district's school lunch options. What we found surprised us both. For one thing, the nutrition information provided by the district had missing pieces and wrong numbers. We did our best with what we could find and used estimates to fill in the holes.
The popular pizza, available daily to high school students, has been billed as a healthier option than previous pizza the district served. (Students at Dimond complained that the taste suffered because of that.) But when we compared it with fast food pizza, we found it had about the same number of calories per slice (340) and a similar amount of fat (13 grams on the pepperoni). Salt was somewhat lower, thought not terrific, at 590 milligrams per slice.
On the school lunch menu, the pizza is often paired with other optional items: a piece of fresh fruit, milk and par-fried potato products, either fries or tots. (According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fried potatoes count as a vegetable.) In high school, everything is a la carte, so students can choose to have pizza every day.
The fries are salty but not terrible (159 calories, 6 grams fat and 439 milligrams of salt), but the tots are another story. They have 226 calories, 13 grams fat, and 450 milligrams of salt. Taken together with pizza, that's a lot of fat and close to the amount of salt in the McDonald's meal. Chocolate milk isn't too bad, adding a little protein and calcium and another 12 grams of sugar.
My burrito? Three-hundred and 10 calories, 10 grams of fat and 640 milligrams of sodium. The best choice would have been a veggie Subway sandwich (230 calories, 2.5 grams fat, 400 milligrams sodium). Surprisingly, the other Subway options, though lower in fat, have a ton of salt. A 6-inch ham sub packs nearly as much (1,200 milligrams) as the entire McDonald's meal.
District meals have to meet a lot of requirements set out by the government, but they don't have to meet nutrition standards every day. Instead they have to meet a weekly standard. Here's what they're going for: 30 percent of calories or less from fat, 10 percent from saturated fat and no more than 30 grams sugar every day. There is no federal sodium standard. The state standard for sodium, also measured on a weekly basis, is 1,650 milligrams on average, per day. That's a lot for lunch, considering the recommended amount for an entire day is no more than 2300 milligrams.
"When you're taking foods and breaking them down that way, you can make a lot of things meet the requirement," Fink said.
In high school, where students have the most choice, they can forgo the healthiest part of the lunch altogether and they can choose to eat the same thing every day. That means their meals don't meet any standards.
If some of the students keep eating the way they eat now, they can expect increased risk of heart disease and obesity. Sodium at the levels the students have become used to increases the risk of stroke and heart disease.
Fink's overall reaction to what students are having for lunch?
Yikes is right. That's why Organic Fresh Fingers was founded - to provide a healthy, fresh, and local alternative to the unhealthy school lunches that are currently being served every day across the country.
Up Next: the second part of Julia's story, where she discusses why school lunch can't be healthier with the district's nutrition services.
To see photos of lunches from Dimond High School with individual calorie counts, click here.