Ed Bruske recently spent a week in the kitchen at H.D. Cooke Elementary School in the District of Columbia observing how food is prepared. This is the second of a six-part series of posts about what he saw. Read parts 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. Cross-posted from The Slow Cook. And check out the rest of the Cafeteria Confidential series.

At 7:30 a.m., the first glimmer of daybreak tints a wall of windows in the big, new dining area at H.D. Cooke Elementary School. Three children sit with food they’ve brought from home; their eyes are glued to a wall-mounted television monitor tuned to SpongeBob cartoons.

One little boy has several items spread out on the table in front of him: “Lunchables” from Oscar Meyer, consisting of crackers, cheddar cheese, and slices of processed ham; a 4-ounce (half-cup) container of apple juice; a bag of “Skittles” candy; and something called “Fruit by the Foot” made by General Mills, a turquoise-colored concoction like fruit leather made of starches, gums, food chemicals, and colorings the company describes as a “fruit-flavored snack.”

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Other than some “pears from concentrate,” there’s very little recognizable food in “Fruit by the Foot.” The most prominent ingredient is sugar — 9 grams of it, or more than two teaspoons, accounting for fully half the snack’s 80 calories. The small bag of Skittles is even more potent. It contains almost 15 grams of sugar, or nearly four teaspoons.

(There are 4.2 grams of sugar in a teaspoon. Remember drinking coffee with a teaspoon of sugar, maybe two? Try to imagine your cuppa joe with three teaspoons, or even six, as you shall soon see. Table sugar is a solid, of course, and the ingredients discussed here are mostly liquid, which might translate into fewer teaspoons than I’ve listed. But you get the picture.)

Studies have found that meals sent from home are frequently inferior, nutritionally speaking, to food served in schools. But during my week as an observer in the kitchen at H.D. Cooke., I found there’s plenty of sugar in school food as well. School food providers know just as well as parents that a little sugar goes a long way towards enticing kids to eat what’s served.

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Breakfast is a prime example and could well be described as sugar loading time at school. Standard in the food line, for instance, is the morning display of Kellogg’s Pop Tarts. These iconic, 1.76-ounce pastries, individually wrapped in foil, are advertised as “whole wheat” and “20 percent fiber.” But the second ingredient in the strawberry Pop Tarts served at H.D. Cooke is high-fructose corn syrup. The 13 grams of sugar, or more than three teaspoons, in each Pop Tart accounts for 27 percent of its 190 calories.

Sugar provides calories, but not nutrition. That’s not the only thing some parents might be concerned about. Pop Tarts are a highly processed convenience food with a daunting list of ingredients: whole wheat flour, high fructose corn syrup, enriched flour, soybean and palm oil, polydextrose, sugar, dextrose, corn syrup solids, corn syrup, whole grain barley flour, glycerin, two percent or less of insulin from chicory root, wheat starch, salt, dried strawberries, dried pears, dried apples, cornstarch, leavening, natural and artificial strawberry flavor, citric accid, gelatin, caramel color, soy lecithin, xanthan gum, modified wheat starch, Vitamin A palmitateRed #40, reduced iron, several B vitamins.

Another standard item on the breakfast line is Pepperidge Farm “Goldfish Giant Grahams.” The individually packaged .9-ounce servings each contain 6 grams of sugar, or about one and one-half teaspoons. That comes with a dose of trans-fats in the form of partially-hydrogenated vegetable shortening.

Sweet, sweet cereal. Photo courtesy ohdearbarb via Flickr Kids at H.D. Cooke usually can select a cold cereal for breakfast and these are typically spiked with sugar as well. Cereal is packed in sealed, individual plastic tubs so that students can simply peel open the container, add milk and eat. Kellogg’s chocolate-flavored “Little Bites Mini-Wheats” was one of the featured cereals when I was visiting. A 1-ounce serving contains six grams of sugar. But there’s more sugar in one of the other cereal’s on the food line, Kellogg’s Apple Jacks. A .63-ounce serving carries eight grams of sugar, or nearly two teaspoons.

Canned fruit in “light syrup” is a standard offering at lunch. It comes in different guises. One day it might be a fruit mix, another day diced peaches. Typically most of the calories come from sugar, as much as 18 grams — usually from corn syrup — in a single half-cup serving. That’s the equivalent of more than four teaspoons of table sugar. There’s sugar in the cafeteria’s salad dressing — Kraft ranch — and high-fructose corn syrup is in the “wheat bread” delivered by H&S Bakery in Baltimore.

Kids are always on the prowl for sugar, and there seems to be no end of occasions for getting more of it. One day as I was observing breakfast service, my daughter, who attends fourth grade at H.D. Cooke, appeared in the food line. We waved to each other, and I couldn’t help noticing that although the day had hardly started, already she was munching her way through a chocolate chip cookie. The grandmother of one of her classmates, she explained, had stopped at Starbucks on the way to school and bought cookies for everyone in early morning band practice.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the rate of adolescent obesity in the District of Columbia is the highest in the nation. Nearly half the children in some wards of the city are overweight. Eighteen percent of high school students in the District are obese, and 35 percent are overweight.

Experts don’t agree on what makes people fat. Some think it comes down to a simple equation: too much eating, not enough exercise to burn calories. Other medical researchers are equally convinced that insulin, a powerful hormone responsible for fat storage, is a primary culprit because it is triggered whenever we eat carbohydrates such as sugar or starchy foods. School menus are loaded with carbohydrates, in part to compensate for the calories sacrificed by serving fewer fats, and because they’re cheap. Or perhaps gaining too much weight is caused by a mix of factors. Despite more than 30 years of hyper-vigilance on the issue of fat in food, Americans — and their children — continue to get fatter.

One thing authorities do agree on is that kids eat too much sugary food, refined grains, and snacks. Sodas, chips, french fries, white bread, pizza, tater tots — all show up on the list of foods that critics of school meals most love to hate. But kids crave them, which creates a dilemma for schools, since they depend on federal payments to support their food service programs, but only receive the federal subsidies for meals that are actually served. In other words, schools have to sell kids on the idea of eating what’s offered. That’s why a school “meal” can actually consist of pizza and tater tots. Though it’s full of starch and fat, it fulfills government requirements for protein, grain, and vegetable — and kids love it.

Federal rules for the school lunch program require that the fat in food be kept at or below 30 percent of total calories, something few schools actually achieve. The rules also stipulate minimum calories for school meals — for instance, 664 lunch calories for kids in Kindergarten through sixth grade. Since fat is dense with calories, and also delivers flavor, succulence, a sense of satiety, school food service providers struggle to meet the minimum calorie levels without the fat and still make food appealing. Sometimes a boost of sugar to the foodline is just the thing to deliver the required calories, even though it may be the last thing students with weight issues need. Some schools serve up the sugar as dessert. Diced peaches in sugary “light syrup” accomplishes the same thing.

In 2006, the D.C. School Board agreed to eliminate sodas and other sugary beverages from schools and to manage the portion sizes of snack foods. ‘Healthy Schools” legislation pending before the D.C. Council would put those policies into law for all public schools in the city, meaning sodas would be banned from charter schools for the first time as well. Charter schools might also have to adjust the snack foods they sell in vending machines.

But while the “Healthy Schools” bill would establish upgraded nutritional standards for D.C. schools, it specifically exempts two beverages that are among the most sugar-laden items on school menus: flavored milk and fruit  juice.

Fruit juice, such as grape juice and apple juice, is a common offering in the H.D. Cooke cafeteria. It arrives at the school frozen, in cases of individual 4-ounce containers. At some point the cases are moved into the kitchen’s walk-in refrigerator to thaw. But according to my daughter, the juice is almost always still frozen when it is served. I looked on as the kids had fun with their mostly-frozen juice cups, first sucking out the juice with a drinking straw, then picking away at the rest with a plastic spoon.

People think of fruit juice as being healthful. What could be more natural than the concentrated essence of fruit? But 100 percent fruit juice is loaded with sugar in the form of fructose. A 4-ounce container of apple juice, for instance, contains nearly 13 grams of sugar as fructose. That’s the equivalent of three teaspoons of table sugar, or virtually the same, ounce-for-ounce, as Coca-Cola [PDF].

Some medical researchers are now concerned that high doses of fructose may have other health consequences besides contributing to an overabundance of calories in the diet. Fructose is metabolized somewhat differently by the body than sucrose and other forms of sugar. It goes directly to the liver. Researchers hypothesize that fructose could be responsible for an increasing incidence of fatty liver disease, as well as metabolic problems such as insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes.

An even greater controversy is brewing around the issue of flavored milk in schools. I still remember as a kid lining up at a machine in elementary school to pay two cents for a carton of milk. These days schools are required to offer milk at all meals. At H.D. Cooke, that means four different varieties of milk from Cloverland Green Springs Dairy in Baltimore are displayed in a cooler at the entrance to the food line: low-fat regular milk, non-fat regular milk, chocolate-flavored milk, and strawberry-flavored milk.

Adherents to the theory that fat is behind America’s health problems have done a great job of driving the naturally occurring fat out of milk. But until recently, little attention was paid to the amount of sugar being added to milk served in schools. While federal rules place a limit on fat in meals, there’s no limit on sugar. All milk contains some natural sugar in the form of lactose. But flavored milk has much more sugar added, usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. For instance, an 8-ounce serving of chocolate milk from Cloverland Dairy contains 26 grams of sugar — about 6 teaspoons — only slightly less than Coke. Cloverland strawberry milk has more sugar still: 28 grams  in a single, one-cup serving, putting it almost in the same league as Mountain Dew.

Children who choose strawberry are getting a dose of other ingredients that never came out of a cow: beet juice concentrate (for color), propylene glycol, ethyl alcohol, natural flavoring, garrageenan, sugar, Vitamin A palmitate, and Vitamin D3.

Ann Cooper, nutrition director for schools in Boulder, Colorado, is a leading advocate of school meals cooked from scratch with natural ingredients. Cooper has dubbed flavored milk “soda in drag,” and is part of a gathering movement to remove flavored milk from schools. The dairy industry, which depends on flavored milk for a large portion of its sales to schools nationwide, is fighting back, claiming the added sugar is justified because kids might not drink their milk otherwise and would be deprived of important nutrients such as calcium and Vitamin D.

Some school districts report success getting children to drink non-flavored milk and save money in the bargain by allowing the kids to pour their own from pitchers. Kids only pour as much as they want and teachers sit at the same tables to encourage better eating habits. That would represent quite a change at H.D. Cooke where there are no cups. Kids drink milk directly from the carton it comes in.

Oblivious to the health debate, kids at H.D. Cooke love their chocolate and strawberry milk. “It’s the first thing they go for,” said a teacher standing near the food line one day. From my own observations, the overriding majority of children choose a flavored milk with their meal. In the middle of lunch service one day, the cooler ran out of chocolate and strawberry milk while there was still plenty of regular milk to go around.

“I know that they prefer the flavored milk over the white because some of them put it in their cereal,” said kitchen manager Tiffany Whittington.

Sure enough. Touring the dining hall one morning, I saw kids eating their chocolate-flavored “Little Bites Mini-Wheats” swimming in chocolate milk. Nothing like a double dose of sugar first thing in the morning. Throw in a container of apple juice and you begin to understand why kids expect a dose of sugar with every meal.

Next: The environmental consequences of school food.