The School Nutrition Dietary Assessment included information from 398 public schools in 130 districts across the United States, including 2,314 students in first through 12th grade during the 2004-05 school year.
It found that more than 70 percent of the schools served meals that met the standards for critical nutrients such as protein, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.
But a mere 6 to 7 percent of subsidized meals met all nutritional standards, the study found. Most had too much saturated fat or fat overall, and not enough calories.
About 42 percent of the schools surveyed offered no fresh fruits or raw vegetables in their lunch programs.
Fat tended to come from salad dressings, condiments and spreads, pizza products, peanut butter sandwiches and french fries. Saturated fat tended to come from pizza products, condiments and spreads, 2-percent milk, salad plates or salad bars and hamburgers or cheeseburgers.
Foods in vending machines and offered á la carte and in snack bars were most often high in calories and low in nutrients: candy, french fries, donuts, sweetened drinks and salty snacks.
The study found that low-income children fared worse, nutritionally, than those from higher-income homes, although school-lunch-program participants generally got more nutrients in their meals than kids responsible for their own lunches.
As for remedies, Gordon and the other researchers offered some. "Innovative preparation methods or improvements in the presentation of fruits and vegetables could make these items more appealing to children," they wrote. The study suggested that school cooks use whole-grain flours to prepare pizza crusts and mix whole-grain and regular pasta in pasta-based entrees and that school lunchrooms control the available portions of condiments such as ketchup, mustard and barbeque sauce to control sodium intake.
Gordon noted that schools have made progress in improving meal offerings, but more needs to be done.
"Part of it is getting kids to eat healthier foods, part of it is providing schools with more support," she said.
The USDA has more on the National School Lunch Program.
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