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Food Fight

Questioning school-lunch nutrition cost Stephanie Adair her job, but she hopes it creates a movement

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Stephanie Adair pulls food wrappers out of a plastic bag. The packaging makes them look just like snacks, and there is a slight fast-food smell about them two weeks after they were emptied. Adair collected the wrappers from several school lunches at Weil Technology Institute, a Pittsburgh Public school in the central Hill District, which shares the menu of all district elementaries.

 

 

 "One day they had mozzarella-filled bread sticks as their main dish," she says, holding a "Max Stix" wrapper slightly bigger than a deck of cards, from Jan. 28's lunch. Max Stix come frozen from the Pizza and Dough Enrobed Products division of Con Agra Foods in Sidney, Ohio. Each package has 15 grams of fat, including 5 grams of saturated fat; of its 330 calories, 140 are from fat. The long ingredients list reads like a recipe for convenience-store food, including "shredded mozzarella cheese," "shredded mozzarella cheese substitute" and "shredded mozzarella cheese type flavor."

 

The menu that afternoon also included milk, an ice cream push-up and an apple Home Run Turnover from Horizon Snack Foods of Livermore, Calif. Max Stix and Home Run Turnovers are offered in hundreds of school districts throughout the country.

 

The vast majority of Weil Technology Institute students -- 87 percent by 2002 figures -- qualify for free or reduced lunches under the National School Lunch Program. Figuring that these students also eat the free breakfast, Adair was disturbed, especially with the amount of fat in many items: "It's supposed to be that they're definitely getting a good meal when they eat there. On this day, they had the option of having a pear. I guess the marinara sauce is counting as a vegetable."

 

Not really, since one veggie is always on offer, says the district. But the meal seemed less than optimal to this 21-year-old University of Pittsburgh senior who uses her own government food stamps to buy vegetarian fare from places like the East End Food Co-op. She ate beside Weil students while employed in a Pitt work-study job with America Reads, a tutoring program.

 

 "It's like there's a child in charge, deciding their menu," she says.

 

Adair thought she could help students eat better by approaching the Co-op and other places for possible donations or nutrition-education programs, especially since childhood obesity is a concern today. Then she approached Weil's principal, Vivian Wilson, with her idea. After a meeting or two, says Adair, Wilson refused to deal with her.

 

Wilson referred a call from City Paper to Pittsburgh Public Schools spokesperson Pat Crawford. "Encouraging kids to eat healthy meals is one thing," Crawford says. "Actually bringing in food for kids to eat is another, and that's where I think she was out of line" with federal school lunch-program regulations.

 

Adair sent a letter about Weil's alleged lack of green stuff to Vonda Fekete, school nutrition-program supervisor in the state Department of Education's Division of Food and Nutrition. Fekete says they inspected Weil and found it in compliance with federal requirements. The inspection consisted of making sure Weil's paperwork was in order.

 

Adair then announced something she says didn't sit well with the principal: "I'm doing this as a member of the Green Party." Adair is on the Allegheny County party's executive committee. She was fired from her America Reads position shortly afterwards because she "engaged in non-tutoring activities while signed in as a tutor," says her supervisor, Danna Belski in Pitt's Office of Student Life.

 

Adair says her campaign to change school lunches has only begun. Local Greens are already trying to get the city school board on their side, beginning with the public-comment portion of the March 14 meeting.

 

But according to the district -- and the companies who sell them food -- local Greens may have a hard row of veggies to hoe.

 

"It's wonderful, it's idealistic," says Danny Seymour, director of Pittsburgh Public Schools' Division of Food Service, about Adair's effort. "If we could get the financial support. I just don't think in the realm of education you're going to see that today."

 

The city schools' food program, which includes breakfast, lunch and after-school snacks, offers free or reduced lunches to 65 percent of its students. Most of the money for this food comes from the National School Lunch Program, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The food-service budget is augmented by a la carte sales in school cafeterias and meals offered in schools' Head Start programs, plus catering contracts with the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, the Board of Education and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Do the teachers eat Max Stix? "Catering menu is different," Seymour says. "That's how we're able to increase our revenue."

 

The USDA allows the district to make its own lunch menu, as long as it uses protein, fruits, vegetables, bread and dairy or milk in prescribed proportions that account for a third of the students' daily nutrition (including 30 percent or fewer calories from fat).

 

But the feds don't just reimburse district expenses; they offer government surplus foods as payment. Rather than dealing with 2,000 pounds of mozzarella or bushels of apples, districts agree to accept Max Stix or Home Run Turnovers. It fits the budget more easily than does roast chicken and steamed broccoli. And it still meets federal nutrition requirements.

 

The district has recently added more fresh fruits and vegetables, Seymour says, because society's focus on healthier lifestyles has finally filtered down to students. But, Seymour says, let's face it: Many kids prefer a fast-food-like lunch. "It's sort of like any restaurant -- kids will participate ... based on items they enjoy."

 

Scott Pollock, national sales manager for Horizon, which makes the Home Run Turnover, says kids are served them in up to 20 percent of the country's 17,000 school districts. "It's one way of getting the kids to eat their fruit and bread while thinking they're getting a treat," he says. Besides, eating habits have "got to change in the home before ... anything," he concludes. Hopeful reformers like Adair, while civic-minded, "might end up regulating the school-lunch business right out of business."

 

 

Making this business less of a business would be fine with Adair. Even if school meals fit federal regulations, she says, those regs must be changed. She hopes the Green Party can firm up help from local natural-food sellers and agencies concerned with nutrition, then take these offers of help to parents, teachers and school administrators. As a first step, the Greens would at least like to eliminate a lot of the snack-type a la carte items from schools. They are convinced this mission is not quixotic -- even in the face of modern eating habits.

 

 "I think we have a chance of improving things in a couple of schools here in Pittsburgh," says Jonah McAllister-Erickson, speaking for the county party. "It'll be a long, hard fight to change the system nationally."

 

Childhood, Adair says, "is where [kids'] food habits are starting to be formed. They'll realize there's nothing wrong with squash.

 

 

 "Maybe," she allows, grade-school students "would be unhappy with healthy foods too. But especially with free lunches ... it can really force them to eat good foods."

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