• Audrey Sanchez

Balanced Menu Scorecard

Accountability is really important to us here at Balanced. So important, in fact, that we made it one of our core values. We value accountability both internally and externally, and appreciate when we're held to a high standard. Fundamentally, it's about demanding the best of ourselves and those around us.


So when it came to holding institutions accountable for change, we knew we needed a tool that would measure progress toward their best. In partnership with an expert nutritionist, lifestyle medicine practitioners, and numerous institutional food service professionals, we built the Balanced Menu Scorecard.


In the week since we announced the inaugural scores for the largest 25 school districts in the country, we've gotten a whole host of inquiries. To help clarify and provide transparency about the process, we've provided a few quick answers to the questions we get most often.



First of all, what is the Balanced Menu Scorecard and what is the purpose?


The scorecard lists the healthfulness scores of menus at various institutions. These scores were generated using a survey assessment tool that holistically evaluates the dietary quality of meal offerings on a given menu.


We created the scorecard to raise awareness about the epidemic of disease-promoting food environments that are produced and reproduced by the institutions that communities rely on for food. Such institutions include schools, worksites, hospitals, prisons, and so on. Too many of these institutions of authority are shaping local food environments in ways that ultimately promote or facilitate unhealthy eating habits, and these same institutions, in large part, have the power to flip the script.

I noticed most of the scores are pretty low, how would an institution score higher?


To achieve a high score, the institutions would have to:

  • consistently offer as many plant-based proteins as animal-based proteins

  • emphasize 100% whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fresh fruits daily; 

  • include a diversity of fruits and vegetables from all classes;

  • demonstrate a food environment that is at least 50% fruits and vegetables, with protein and refined grains limited to less than 20% of the foods served

  • deemphasize high-cholesterol, high-saturated fat, high-sodium foods including meat, egg, and junk food products

  • include no processed meats (chicken nuggets, pepperoni, sausage, deli meat like turkey and ham, hot dogs, bacon, etc...) 

  • heavily restrict red meats;

  • advertise non-dairy fortified milks; 

  • restrict dairy to no-sugar-added and lowest-fat options; 

  • be transparent in all options offered and in portion sizes of meat offerings.


Whoa, that's a lot of things for folks to do and it seems like you're pushing a vegan agenda.


We look to see the diversity of proteins offered, and if the majority of proteins are meat, that does impact the score.


The instrument is designed to consider what proportion of the menu's entrees are centered around plant-proteins, and what proportion are animal proteins. Optimally, we're looking to see a balance between meat and non-meat proteins.


Traditionally, institutional menus have been dominated by unhealthy meat-centered entrees, with little room for balance. These are the foods that evidence-based nutrition science has shown time and again to negatively impact health when over-consumed. We want to make sure there is balance in the meals served, so that unhealthy foods aren't over-consumed.

The scorecard also considers the amount of processed meats on the menus. As a result of the American Academy of Pediatrics  call for the reduction or elimination of processed meats from children's diets, we take into consideration the ratio of processed to unprocessed meats served each week. In addition to analyzing how much of the menu's proteins come from sources that don't contain cholesterol or saturated fats. 



Why are most of the scores the same?


Because most of the menus are the same or astonishingly similar. Heavy hitters include: chicken nuggets, pizza, cheeseburgers, cheesy beef nachos, and maybe a cold peanut butter and jelly. Few menus have an adequately diverse offering of vegetables, and few provide alternatives to dairy.


For context, the baseline minimum standard for a healthy dietary pattern is 50% fruits and vegetables. 25% is supposed to be whole grains. Protein (meat or plant) is capped at 20% and dairy should never be more than 10%. We only found a few menus that met those criteria.


Why are you calling out schools? Aren't they usually just following the national guidelines?


We are calling on schools, not calling them out. We believe schools have the responsibility and opportunity to positively impact entire generations of children. Each one of their annual 360+ meals is an opportunity to cultivate and develop healthy eating habits. Given this great opportunity, and the professionalism of the food service teams at most schools, we trust they're capable of making the changes necessary to improve the healthfulness of their menus.


And frankly, the Federal Nutrition Standards are anemic at best. Industry influenced and profit-centric at worst.


Evidence-based nutrition science is providing the clear and robust evidence for more balanced menus at a pace that moves quicker than the FNS revisions. Following FNS is not a guarantee that children are being served truly nutritionally sound meals that consider both their short- and long-term health outcomes.


Why should we trust the Balanced Menu Scorecard?


Consumers and institutions can place full trust in the scorecard because it is based on a rigorous analysis of the nutrition science literature and current federal dietary guidelines, and it thus holds institutions to a high standard of healthfulness. 


The scorecard essentially reflects whether or not an institutional menu has successfully maximized healthy foods and minimized any unhealthy foods. Additionally, as an independent non-profit, Balanced's analysis and recommendations have not been watered down by industry influence or junk science.


Have more questions? Send them our way: AudreyS@balanced.org


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