Schools Serve Up Faux-Junk Food

Dominated by doughnuts, pizza and foods-on-a-stick, the average school menu in West Virginia can read like the offerings at a glutton's dream buffet.

While the food choices may appear unhealthy, administrators say they are sneaking in nutrition to combat childhood obesity in a state where 13.7 percent of children were overweight in 2005.

In schools across the state, fat and calories are being cut by furtively supplementing hamburgers with soy and subbing applesauce for shortening in cake.

"We get a lot of criticism for serving pizza so often, but the cheese is low fat and the crust is whole grain," said Richard Goff, director of the state Department of Education's Office of Child Nutrition.

The faux-junk food push is the nutritional equivalent of making airplane noises while zooming a spoonful of food into a child's mouth: a dressy distraction intended to get children to clean their plates.

One breakfast item sold to schools in West Virginia and across the country -- deep-fried Super Donuts -- are fortified with 5 grams of protein and 14 minerals and vitamins.

"Nutritionally modified junk food is big right now, and it is helpful," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"When companies improve the nutritional quality of foods they know kids will like, it does make it easier for parents and schools to feed children healthfully," she said. "It can be part of the solution, but it can't be the whole solution."

While the faux-junk food movement may be an appropriate stepping stone to healthy eating, some nutritionists say it could establish bad habits.

"The problem is we can't always have our cake and eat it, too," said Dr. Stephen Daniels, a pediatric cardiologist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

He worries that children who grow up eating faux fast foods may have trouble making good food choices as adults.

"There are ways to prepare healthy foods to make them more palatable, but I'm not sure we need to hide them in a doughnut or a hot dog," he said.

New York University Professor of Nutrition and Food Studies Marion Nestle said the idea that children won't eat healthy foods is wrong.

"When you go into the schools that take responsibility, you see kids eating adult food and they're liking it," Nestle said.

A Penn State study released Tuesday found that preschoolers who ate pasta sauce blended with broccoli and cauliflower ate 17 percent fewer calories per meal and didn't complain about any difference in taste.

"I'd rather see parents blending veggies and sneaking them into dishes where they can, rather than going the fake food route," researcher Dr. Barbara Rolls said.

Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services in Berkeley County, Calif., said she is appalled that a meal of chicken nuggets, tater tots, chocolate milk and fruit cocktail with high fructose corn syrup meets the nutritional requirements under the national school lunch program.

"We don't need to put tricks into food, it's just another processing mechanism and that is not enough," Cooper said.

At Piedmont Elementary School in Charleston, a breakfast offering is "Pancake on a stick," a variation on corn dogs with sausage and pancake batter, to be dipped in syrup. For lunch, pepperoni and cheese-stuffed pizza breads. Bologna sandwiches for snacks.

"The kids won't eat brown beans, and they don't like kale," principal Stephen Knighton said. "But they do love their salad bar, and we try our very best to get some nutrition into these kids."