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School cafeterias flunk when it comes to the high-fat menus they provide students and are barely keeping up with society's move toward healthier foods, a consumer group charges.

But local school nutritionists are constantly trying to raise the grade, juggling nutrition and limited budgets while trying to provide food that children will want to eat.Public Voice for Food and Health Policy is asking Congress to require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to revise its school lunch program by reducing the fat content of school lunches to 30 percent of the calories consumed.

``There is just too much fat,' said Jodie Silverman, a Public Voice spokeswoman. ``Check out the menus: cheeseburgers, fried chicken, pizza and french fries.'

``When they talk about schools in general, they miss what individual schools are doing,' said Jean Reece, Guilford County schools director of child nutrition.

``We offer salads in every school every day. Only half our schools have french-fryers, so when you see french fries on the menu, they may be baked. All our foods are fried in canola oil. That has the lowest amount of saturated fat.'

The schools also use fewer gravies and provide students with fresh fruits daily, Reece said.

Public Voice's findings come from an analysis of what fifth- through eighth-graders in 41 states told Current Science magazine they were offered and ate on a particular school day. North Carolina students were not surveyed.

``We are aware of the level of fat in school lunch menus, and we have been working for several years on reducing it,' said Phil Shanholtzer, a USDA spokesman.

In recent years the USDA has revised menus sent to schools, urged baking over frying, reduced the acceptable fat level in hamburger meat and expanded the variety of fish products, Shanholtzer said.

However, the USDA does not have any fat guidelines, although health officials recommend that the fat content in diets for ages 2 years and older does not exceed 30 percent, Silverman said. Diets high in fat have been found to contribute to heart disease.

Public Voice estimates that an average cafeteria meal contains 39 percent fat.

``We've got to serve healthy foods, but also foods they'll eat. Foods that are left on a tray are not going to help anyone grow,' said Reece of the Guilford County schools.

In its analysis, Public Voice found that lower-fat options, such as baked chicken, baked potatoes and frozen yogurts are served, but not so frequently and not in the quantity as higher-fat foods.

In addition, three times as many schools offered fried chicken rather than lower fat baked chicken.

In the survey, 58 percent of the students ate school lunches and 32 percent ate lunches from home.

Today's school lunch menu for Guilford County offers chef salad or chicken nuggets with sauce, corn, fruit cocktail or fresh fruit, trail mix and milk. For Greensboro schools, it's steak biscuit or fish sandwich, corn, fried okra, applesauce, peaches and milk. In High Point, it's pizza, macaroni and cheese, bologna curls, steamed broccoli, potato puffs, assorted juices, milk.

``We are cutting down on the salt, fat and sugar we put in our food, and we are also checking labels and trying not to buy products prepared in a lot of fat,' said Ethelean Canada, director of High Point school's child nutrition program. The elementary schools don't even have deep-fat fryers, she said.

She joins others, though, in saying that food service problems are complicated.

``The easiest place to put the blame is on the schools,' said Claudia Green, a food service specialist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

``Schools are facing a very uncertain and difficult time because of cutbacks, reductions of commodities and a lack of funds,' said Green. Commodities are free foods allocated to schools from the USDA and have included butter and cheese, which are high in fats.

``But if you are given a minimum budget and told to feed a certain number of children, you have to accept it,' Green said.

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