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Pinellas earns an 'A' in lunch

Healthful food choices at elementary schools win kudos.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 14, 2007

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, based in Washington, D.C., gave Pinellas an A grade and the No. 1 ranking among the 22 large school districts that responded to its survey this year.
[Cherie Diez | Times]

Steady helpings of vegetables have pushed Pinellas County's elementary school lunchrooms to the top of the charts, says a new report scheduled for release today.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, based in Washington, D.C., gave Pinellas an A grade and the No. 1 ranking among the 22 large school districts that responded to its survey this year.

The group praised Pinellas' elementary school menus, which "regularly include and highlight vegetarian items" and offer vegan options such as vegetarian chili and a veggie burger wrap.

One of the more popular items: a bean and cheese burrito.

"A low-fat hot vegetable side is available every day, as well as a side salad," said the report, which also lauded the district's "Teen Cuisine" television program, where middle school students team with local chefs to make healthy snacks.

Pinellas came away with 94 points out of 100 on the committee's annual report card, far ahead of "F" districts such as Anchorage 60 and St. Louis (53), where children received a heavier diet of corn dogs, fish sticks, tater tots, pizza, French fries and turkey sausage.

"We've been working on it for years and it is a priority," said Gray Miller, who heads the Food Services enterprise for Pinellas Schools. "We do believe that the obesity epidemic in the United States is not our problem alone, but we can be part of the solution."

The new report cites a July paper by a research team at Johns Hopkins University predicting 75 percent of Americans -- including 24 percent of children and adolescents -- will be overweight by 2015 if current trends continue.

In 2000, Pinellas schools removed french fries from elementary school lunch rooms and stopped offering deep-fat fries in middle and high schools.

In high schools, Miller said, the district limits portion sizes of fries to a stingy 4.5 ounces and won't let students purchase more than one order at a time. Fries are offered twice a week in middle schools but will be phased out by the 2009-10 school year.

In addition, Miller said, the district is always looking to buy other products that are low-fat, low-salt and low-sugar, even when it comes to items traditionally not considered healthful, like macaroni and cheese or hot dogs.

"There is no doubt in my mind it is a healthier hot dog today than it was 10 years ago," she said.

The Physicians Committee, founded in 1985, says it is a nonprofit organization that "promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research."

Besides school lunches, its other interests include cancer and diabetes research. The group also investigates unethical experiments on humans and animals.

The group solicited responses from the nation's 100 largest school districts but received just 22. No other school district in the Tampa Bay area made this year's list.

Other Florida districts on the list are Miami-Dade, Volusia and Orange.

Some districts that received low ratings in past nutrition report cards decline to participate again, said spokeswoman Tara Failey. The committee first began issuing the report cards in 2001.

The committee used three criteria to grade districts: how well they prevented obesity and chronic disease with low-calorie, low-cholesterol items; the level of essential nutrients and fiber in their offerings; and how well they promoted healthful eating.

Pinellas ranked third last year and sixth in 2003, making the committee's "solid achievers" category.

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at or (727) 893-8923.

Fast Facts:

How lunches stack up

Here is a sampling from the 22 large school districts rated for their lunches by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

School district Grade

Pinellas County A

Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) A-

Miami-Dade County B+

Oakland (Calif.) B

Volusia County (Fla.) B

Davis School District (Utah) C+

Milwaukee (Wis.) C-

Orange County D+

Atlanta (Ga.) D+

Hancock County (W.Va.) F

St. Louis (Mo.) F


[Last modified August 13, 2007, 23:36:52]

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