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School lunches getting better grades

WASHINGTON—Lunch programs are improving in many big school districts nationwide, a preventive medicine group said Tuesday.

Fifteen of the 18 districts that the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine surveyed earned passing grades of C's or better for the healthiness of their offerings. Four earned A's or A-minuses. No school district's lunch program did that well in the group's last survey, conducted in 2004.

"What surprised me the most was just the significant positive changes from the 2004 report card," said Dulcie Ward, a dietitian in charge of the report. "A lot of schools finally are recognizing the benefit to serving vegetarian foods."

Elementary-school lunchrooms got points for meeting U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, which dictate that less than 30 percent of calories per meal come from fat and only 10 percent come from saturated fat. They also earned points for offering vegetables and fruits and having nutritious options such as juice in vending machines.

Also graded were the schools' efforts to encourage eating healthy foods and to educate students about nutrition.

Four school districts earned A's or A-minuses—Fairfax, Va.; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Pinellas, Fla.; and San Diego. All of them improved from B's in previous reports. At the bottom of the pile were Minneapolis and Hancock, Miss., with a D and a D-plus, respectively. The lowest grade went to the Memphis (Tenn.) City School District, which got an F.

Only elementary-school kitchens were graded and only on food offered as part of the National School Lunch Program. While the program feeds more than 28 million children daily, many schools also offer snack bars, vending machines and other options that nutritionists criticize.

"I'd love to see bean and rice burritos, veggie burgers and other low-fat alternatives become the new school lunch staples," said Ward, but she isn't holding her breath.

"You can serve the food, but it doesn't mean students will choose it," she added. "Kids today have been raised on fast food."

High-fiber, low-fat diets can reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, according to medical experts. Obesity has grown in recent years among children, and school cafeterias have caught much of the blame.

So there's no place for pepperoni pizza and chicken nuggets in future fourth-period lunches?

"If you're aiming for ideal health, I think not," said Ward.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine's report will be available Thursday on its Web site, www.pcrm.org

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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