There have been many stories in the news lately about school lunch, from the controversy over “pink slime” beef to the uproar over the federal standard that allows tomato paste in pizza to count as a vegetable serving.
But the coverage hasn’t answered the question of how healthy the actual meals are. To address that issue, we obtained records from the California Department of Education that showed the nutritional analysis for all school lunches reviewed by the state in the past five years.
The data is part of the School Meals Initiative review process, and it provides a snapshot of the amount of calories, protein, calcium, vitamins, iron, fats, fiber, cholesterol and sodium served in the course of a week at each school district or independent charter school. The wholesomeness of meals can fluctuate from day to day, but averaging the values over a week helps account for that.
We asked the state for all the specific menu items analyzed but were told that information was not available electronically. Ultimately, we received a spreadsheet with about 2,900 records that showed the average nutrient values for schools and other program participants reviewed between October 2006 and October 2011.
After receiving the data, we removed duplicate records and data from child care centers, private schools and other locations that were not public schools. We found dozens of instances in which data were missing or appeared to be erroneous and did not include that information in our analysis.
We would have preferred to post the data online so readers could look up results for the districts in which they’re interested. But we decided against it because the state cannot comprehensively track lunches across all schools. We did not want individual districts to be criticized if their reviews were missing, incomplete or inaccurate.
In aggregate, the data provides a good window into the system. In cases in which specific numbers and menus are mentioned in the story, we confirmed the data through additional state records or interviews with school officials.
We examined the data from many angles, looking at how common the violations were, how often districts were visited and how many sites were visited.
Federal regulations use clear cutoffs for interpreting nutrient values. For example, when more than 30 percent of calories in the average meals come from fat, the school is in violation of the standard. When more than 10 percent of calories are from saturated fat, it needs to be corrected. We followed those same rules in compiling our statistics.
For calculating the ratio of school districts and charter schools that the state did not review, we compared the number of unique participants inspected in our five-year period with the average number of participants from each of the past five years. We recognize that there were likely schools that closed and new ones that opened during that time, and therefore the actual number of unique participants is greater. But we wanted our calculation to be conservative.
We presented the data and our analysis to two industry experts, who were able to provide guidance on conclusions that could be drawn from it, and its limitations.
We spent months speaking with more than three dozen people – school food service workers, parents, teachers, children, nutritionists, researchers, food manufacturers and state regulators – to tell the story behind the numbers.