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You Tell Us: How healthy is school lunch?

on May 12, 2011

All of us support the idea of children having a healthy school lunch.  But what does that really mean?  And are the children in the Oakland Unified School District getting it?

The federally-funded school lunch program (National School Lunch Program or NSLP) has been running for over six decades. In its first year (1946-7) NSLP provided “one healthy meal a day” to 7 million eligible American school children through age eighteen. Today it serves over 30 million. Over 100,000 public and non‐profit private schools and residential childcare institutions nationwide now participate.

Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is one of the largest urban districts in the nation and an important participant in the NSLP. Every day OUSD feeds some 42,000 meals to students — 6500 breakfasts,10,000 snacks and 27,000 lunches. It operates over 90 cafeterias, with several of these serving more than one school. But how healthy is the food actually being served? And, I would argue, we should define “healthy” in not just nutritional terms, but also in terms of its safety.

School lunches have come in for a lot of criticism over the years, primarily for their low nutritional standards. It’s been an uphill battle: financial constraints, poorly equipped school kitchens, staff limitations, the general problems involved in mass-preparation of food, and children’s own not-so-good food preferences. They may now be getting better — nutritionally, that is. The recent passage of the school nutrition bill and the general concern about childhood obesity is leading to positive changes. Much of the focus is on increasing the use of fruit and vegetables, especially from local and regional sources.  Think salad bars instead of pizza.

The OUSD was already taking steps toward such changes before the law was passed. It expanded vegetarian options on the menu, prioritized the procurement of fruits and vegetables locally — and expanded salad bars in schools.  Our local stores such as Whole Foods Market, networks such as the Oakland Farms-to-Schools Network, the Slow Food movement, and various other individuals and organizations have pitched in to promote improvements and to help implement them. All this is good. I am not arguing against it. In fact, I supported the passage of the school nutrition bill as a member of the American Public Health Association and of Slow Food.

But I do wish a little more attention was being paid to the safety aspects of such changes, to make sure that these school lunches not only provide children with a nutritionally adequate meal, but don’t make them sick. Food poisoning in our schools?  Yes, it happens. True, school lunches have generally had fewer food poisoning problems than food served in restaurants, hospitals and nursing home cafeterias. But they have had their fair share. Some of the reported outbreaks have been relatively small. Others have involved hundreds of vulnerable children, even over a thousand, several school districts and more than one state. It is not unusual for children who ate bad food in school to also infect their siblings at home, adding to the numbers.

Although nutritionally desirable, one factor that may add to such outbreaks is salad bars. Studies have shown that salad bars are one of the riskiest places to eat — from a safety perspective, that is. The latest statistics I found were that the OUSD had at least 56 operating salad bars in schools. I am sure there are more now.

But why are they risky? At least for three reasons:  the salad items are extensively handled, they tend to sit out for a while — often not in the best conditions — and the food is eaten raw, without a cooking “kill” step.  A number of studies have pointed out the unsanitary nature of school cafeterias, but they do vary. I haven’t seen any studies on our own Oakland schools, so I don’t know how they compare on this dimension.  But, based on studies done elsewhere, I would bet that not all the school cafeteria workers are properly trained in basic food safety, some have poor sanitation practices, and a sizeable percentage are carriers of bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus, Listeria monocytogenes, one or other of the Salmonella, or a virus such as Norovirus.  Maybe even a parasite or two.  Of course, a portion of the contaminants are likely to have already entered the produce before it arrives at the school gate. But the chances are that just as many get in right inside that cafeteria, some in the kitchen, and some while the food is sitting in the salad bar.

So what can we do about it? How can salad bars be made safer? In addition to the obvious aspects such as training of staff, good washing of produce and avoiding cross-contamination, other features such as a salad bar “sneeze guard” (also helpful for flying bugs), and adequate cooling are important.  So are individual serving tools for each item. Food also shouldn’t sit out too long. In some cases, particularly with younger children, it would be better if someone else did the actual serving, rather than the students themselves. (A couple of local teachers have told me some horror stories). Agreed, salad bars are a potentially good contribution to a healthy school lunch. But let’s make sure they are truly healthy — in safety as well as nutritional terms.

Heli Perrett, PhD, who lives in North Oakland, is the author of “The Safe Food Handbook,” published in January, 2011, and an active blogger on food safety issues on


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  1. Jennifer LeBarre on May 19, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Dear Ms. Perrett,

    First and foremost, we appreciate your acknowledgement of both the challenges OUSD Nutrition Services faces (financial constraints, lack of equipment, staff limitations, the general problems involved in mass-preparation of food, etc) as well as our successes with and commitment to serving healthy food to students in Oakland (more salad bars, no new food items with high fructose corn syrup or trans fats, locally procured produce, etc).

    We would like to point out that the quality and safety of the food served to students at Oakland schools is of paramount importance to the Nutrition Services Department, the School District as a whole, and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). We take food safety very seriously which is why the following controls and precautions have been in place in school cafeterias:

    • Each school that cooks or has a salad bar has at least one employee who is Food Safety Certified.
    • As mandated by the NSLP, all cafeterias comply with the Hazard Access & Critical Control Points (HACCP) management system for keeping food safe. Familiarity with HACCP is an essential part of the training for all workers in our school cafeterias.
    • Parent & student salad bar volunteers are required to attend an hour long training focusing on safe food handling and preparation.
    • In addition, salad bar volunteers monitor the salad bars during lunch time. They encourage students to “take what they want, but eat what they take” as well as assist the younger children with produce selection and handling and demonstrate the proper use of tongs, etc.
    • All staff and volunteers utilize hats or hair nets, aprons and gloves while practicing good personal hygiene.
    • All salad bar equipment has been selected to ensure compliance with health and safety regulations.

    Like you, we believe a comprehensive food safety program is critical in ensuring the well being of our students.


    Jennifer LeBarre
    Nutrition Services Director
    Oakland Unified School District

    • Carmen on March 5, 2012 at 2:41 pm

      Dear Ms LeBarre,
      Question regarding lunch program for charter school, Oakland School for the Arts. Currently this school receives their lunches from Revoluntion Foods, prepackaged. I have a son, losing his eyesight due to diabetes, he graduated from SF Culinary School and would like to propose on sight prepared meals. Students want certain foods and drink that this company does not supply. Would their be a time that I could schedule a meeting to ask some questions such as is there a requirement for insurance, if so who and where would we be able to get this and amount needed, does a charter school have the right to do a lunch program without the permission of OUSD or Alameda County? Please let me know if it would be possible to meet. Thank you
      Carmen Campanioni

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