‘A la Carte’ Menus Encourage Kids to Eat Poorly

Published August 1, 2003

Reporting in the July 2003 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, registered nurse Martha Kubik and colleagues at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health found school-age children who were allowed to choose food outside the standard school lunches ate more fat and fewer fruits and vegetables than the government recommends.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), nine out of 10 U.S. schools offer “a la carte” lunch programs, which are not required to meet USDA nutritional guidelines. Those guidelines call for eating at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables and getting no more than 30 percent of calories from fat.

Consumer and parents’ groups have begun complaining about the a la carte menus and school vending machines, which offer children more snack foods alongside the traditional, more nutritionally balanced, standard school lunch offering. But until now, little scientific research has been done into the effects of offering children such choices.

“This is probably the first paper that looks at the ‘a la carte’ programs in schools and their influence on student dietary behavior,” said Kubik. Her research team collected data from 16 middle schools, three of which did not offer a la carte alternatives. They took detailed notes on what the teenagers ate for the previous 24 hours, not just what they ate at school.

Kubik’s study suggests schools offering students pizza and fries as alternatives to healthier lunch choices are not only encouraging children to eat high-fat foods during lunch hour, but after school and at home as well.

“A la carte availability was inversely associated with fruit and fruit/vegetable consumption and positively associated with total and saturated fat intake,” reported Kubik and her colleagues. “Snack vending machines were negatively correlated with fruit consumption.”

Despite her research findings, Kubik said she did not believe school districts would easily give up a la carte. The programs have become an important revenue source for school food services programs. The USDA says a la carte sales generated an average of $913 per 1,000 students in the 1998-1999 school year.

Conrad F. Meier is managing editor of Health Care News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The full text of “The Association of the School Food Environment with Dietary Behaviors of Young Adolescents,” authored by Martha Kubik, Leslie A. Lytle, Peter J. Hannan, Cheryl L. Perry, and Mary Story and published in the July 2003 issue of American Journal of Public Health, is available on the Internet at http://www.ajph.org/. The Journal charges $7 for reprints. Kubik’s email address is [email protected].