WRAL Investigates

Tests show school lunches high in sodium

Posted March 1, 2010
Updated March 2, 2010

— Have you ever wondered about the nutritional value of the meals served in school cafeterias?

WRAL Investigates followed six students through the lunch line recently to see what choices they made and how healthy a meal really is.

The students – two in elementary school, two in middle school and two in high school – selected what to eat.

WRAL took those same choices and portions to Analytical Laboratories in Idaho to find out how much fat, sodium and calories are in each meal.

Click for the complete nutritional breakdown of six sample lunches.

According to dietary guidelines published by the United States Department of Agriculture, children and teens should consume an average of 1,800 calories per day. Nutritionists say that means a healthy lunch should be no more than 700 calories with 23 grams of fat and no more than 500 milligrams of sodium.

All six samples exceeded the recommended 500 milligrams of sodium; four of them had more than 1,000 milligrams. There are no federal limits for sodium in school lunches.

Ashley Honeycutt, a dietician at Rex Hospital, said the sodium levels concerned her.

“If we can catch it when they're younger and keep the sodium intake down, then they are less likely to develop high blood pressure when they age,” she said.

Marilyn Moody, senior director for Wake Child Nutrition Services, said menus in Wake County schools have been revamped in recent years to substitute more healthy choices. They serve turkey franks instead of beef hot dogs and whole grain buns on hamburgers. The chicken nuggets are baked, not fried.

Diane Dulaney's son, Brian, chose a cheeseburger, apple and a Rice Krispies treat, a meal that fell within dietary guidelines.

“I was glad to find out the bun was whole grain,” she said. “That's one of the things we try to focus on in our house.”

A lunch served at Wakefield High School was well beyond the USDA recommendations. A slice of Domino's pizza and a cup of French fries came out to 802 calories, 44 grams of fat and 846 milligrams of sodium.

A student at Leesville Road High School chose two hot dogs, fries and a banana for a total 876 calories. That meal had 40 grams of fat – more than 60 percent of the whole day’s allowance – and 1,190 milligrams of sodium.

Kids do have options, Moody said. They can choose salads, sandwiches, vegetables and fresh fruit. They can even buy snacks that are no more than 35 percent sugar by weight.

But kid-friendly foods like hot dogs, hamburgers and pizzas are on lunch menus every week.

“Our menus are driven by student preference, “Moody said. “If students do not consume the food, it does not matter how healthy it is or how nourishing it is.”

“We balance the menu over the week – high-calorie food one day, low-calorie food next day, so that in a week's time, we have met standards for a school lunch,” Moody said.

She cautioned against judging all school meals by six tests. “It was six meals out of 66,000 meals,” she said.

Bryon Spells, an eighth-grader at Heritage Middle School, chose two hot dogs, tater tots and an orange, a meal that totaled 767 calories, 37 grams of fat and 1,740 milligrams of sodium.

His father, Rodney Spells, said, “He's pretty lean and active. He needs the calories, but it would be good if it had lower fat content.”

Spells praised the Wake meals overall, saying, "They do a very good job on fruits and vegetables and sides, but the main courses could probably be healthier."

Diane Dulaney was pleased by the choice her son, Brian, made at Dillard Drive Elementary School.

"I don't think what he chose was very different from what I would've picked had I been there with him," she said. "It's all things in proportion, which I kind of felt like is what he did."

Honeycutt said parents can balance a heavy lunch with a lighter dinner.

"Parents really have to help educate the children that it is important to have an overall, balanced meal," she said.

"As long as parents really pay attention to it, and take a look at what they're doing at home, then they can compensate for a lot of stuff."


This story is closed for comments.

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  • Travised Mar 2, 2010

    MRE's last 8 YEARS on the shelf. preservative crazy one would suspect.

    I've had to watch the sodium content in all the foods I buy. It really makes you change what you eat when you know your levels are elevated. Same with drinking bottle after bottle of water. I add in Lime and Lemon juice to help lower my pH level.

    Schools make profits on the fast food machines. Until recently, many places didn't have the machines shut off between classes. More and more only allow it to be on during Lunch and before and after the school day.

  • squawk08 Mar 2, 2010

    The food nutrition programs at these public schools are in the red. They get 0 support from the counties, most of their money comes from the Federal government and its to buy food only. The school districts could care less whats being served, the cheaper the better is all they care about. But most parents do not care what their kids are eating. I remember seeing parents allowing their kids to have pepsi, tons of sweets and snacks, and frozen meals that were high in sodium, when they did actually pack their kids lunch. I remember a teacher telling a parent that she should not pack Pepsi in her daughter's lunch and that particular parent cursed her out.

  • venitapeyton Mar 2, 2010

    Somewhere along the way schools convinced someone that cooking on premises was more expensive. I still remember freshly cooked meals, including spinach casserole. And we didn't have pizza, daily french fries or cokes.

  • readme Mar 2, 2010

    I don't want my kid to have a choice at elementary school. I want her to be forced to eat healthy. Maybe they can get fries and a coke at HS but not in kindergarden.

  • missparrothead Mar 2, 2010

    Animal Lover-
    The only meds my 92 yr old grandmother takes is prozac. So....whats the answer to good health...only food? Obviously not.

  • mad_dash Mar 2, 2010

    Not to mention.. you can't make the children eat what they do not want.

  • mad_dash Mar 2, 2010

    Well first off.. The school lunches are regulated. They are told how much of this/ that can be in a meal. If one cafeteria worker adds what "they think" it needs, this is obviously not the guidelines, but it happens.. Secondly, they add all of the extra “junk" to help pay the employees their wages, health insurance etc. The meal program does not make anywhere near the money some of you claim. I would also like to see exactly what is in your food you cook at home/ eat out.

  • lisa4 Mar 2, 2010

    My daughter attends middle school in Wilson, NC and they have FRENCH FRIES every single day to the week except on Thursday when they have soup!!!!!

  • psycho Mar 2, 2010

    MRE's really have that much sodium? I had no idea. You'd think it would be in the military's best interests to have healthy food - after all, with veteran's benefits they may be treating these folks for the heart problems, blood pressure, and diabetes they have later on! Of course, those wouldn't be considered "combat related," would they?

  • 5-113 FA Retired Mar 2, 2010

    How about we make it law that the school board has to eat school lunches every day and see just how fast things are changed.

    Better yet, make them eat MRE's. One meal has the equivalency of one year's requirement of sodium.