Schools provide healthier food, but will students eat it?

KYLENE KIANG The Daily Sentinel
19 November 2006
Cox News Service

Atrans-fat-free cookie. Pizza with whole-wheat crust. More days with tossed salad. Walk through one of School District 51’s cafeterias during lunchtime and you might notice the new, healthier options for students this year.

But will kids go for it?

Director of Nutrition Services Dennis Barrett said the most challenging aspect of putting together a menu for children is catering to their often picky preferences.

"We want kids to be healthy," Barrett said. "But we’ve got to get things that kids will eat. It’s not going to do any good if they don’t eat it,"

On some Mondays, you can get a sloppy joe with Denver baked beans. Other entrée offerings, such as Frito pie or macho nachos, don’t sound particularly healthy, but they’re all made following U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition and caloric guidelines for school lunch, Barrett said.

For instance, each lunch must not exceed 30 percent of the recommended daily value of total fat. And for grades 7 through 12, each lunch must provide at least 825 calories, 16 grams of protein and 400 milligrams of calcium, just to name a few of the requirements.

Dessert items have been reduced, and more vegetables have been added to the lunchtime lineup. Ultragrain, a specially milled whole-wheat flour that looks and tastes like white flour products, is now used in all bread, dinner rolls and pizza dough.

Grand Junction High School freshman Lane Woodrich said he didn’t know the district made changes to provide more nutritious cafeteria food.

"You can’t tell," Woodrich said after eating a slice of pizza.

Others at Woodrich’s lunch table did notice there were fewer days with ice cream and desserts. "I really miss those mega-cookies they would have at Redlands (Middle School)," freshman Daniel Mall said. "They don’t have those here."

Portion control has also been stepped up. Barrett said lunchroom servers received training this year on the amount of food they can and cannot serve to students.

"Before, the kids were getting whatever they wanted," he said.

According to federal guidelines, it takes at least three items to constitute a meal.

"The federal government says you must provide one entrée, three sides and milk. A kid can refuse up to two," Barrett said.

All of these changes haven’t changed the cost of making lunch, Barrett said.

School lunch isn’t exactly a profit-making machine for the district either. Last year, one elementary school lunch cost $2.37 to produce. It’s purchased for $1.30, and after a 27-cent per meal government reimbursement, the district actually loses 80 cents with each meal.

For an elementary school with 300 students who buy lunch five days a week, about $40,320 is lost in a school year.

At the elementary and middle schools, the lunch choices are fairly limited. You can either pack from home or buy a cafeteria lunch.

Once kids get to the high schools, where students can leave campus for lunch, knowing how to make healthy decisions becomes a bigger issue.

Nutrition education is not mandatory in School District 51, but students in middle and high school have the opportunity to learn about nutrition in elective classes.

At Grand Junction High School, information on healthy habits is taught in a health and first aid class and a consumer and family sciences class, Assistant Principal Robert Scandary said.

Scandary hopes the education students receive inside and outside the classroom will help them to make better choices.

"That’s part of growing up, learning to make decisions," Scandary said.

Erin Heggerly, the district’s school health coordinator, hopes parents are taking an active role in teaching nutrition.

"But sometimes they don’t," she said.

Heggerly works with the Mesa County Health Department’s Steps to a Healthier Mesa County program to organize activities for the school district in promoting healthy lifestyles.

She said the Live Well after-school program was promoted throughout the district, but not enough schools have chosen to participate.

Barrett said teaching kids healthy living shouldn’t depend on school lunch alone.

"It’s a combination of food and daily exercise that will make kids better," she said.

Some vending machines in the district have also been revamped to better serve nutritional needs.

Over the summer, sodas in vending machines were replaced with water, sports drinks or fruit drinks. Some exceptions were made to beverage machines in teachers’ lounge areas.

In 2004, the Colorado Legislature passed Senate Bill 103, which encouraged school boards to adopt a policy providing that by the 2006-07 school year at least 50 percent of all school vending machine items be healthful foods or beverages.

School District 51 spokesman Jeff Kirtland said the Board of Education did not create a plan tailored specifically to that bill because the district was already "on track" for improving healthy food options at school.

Kirtland said the junk food vending machine is a dying breed, and only a few such machines are left in the district.

Two of those machines are at Grand Junction High School. It is one of the first things you see before walking to the school’s main office, and it is stocked with the typical staples of on-the-go convenience food - various candies and potato chips - all for a little bit of change.

But the district hopes by the end of the month that new vending machines dispensing healthy foods will make their debut in cafeterias or common areas in the five high schools and Fruita 8/9 school. The machines, known as Horizon OneSource Healthy Vending machines, will offer juice, hard-boiled eggs, fruit, cheese and crackers, salads and sandwiches made in the school’s cafeteria kitchen. The district is currently refurbishing mechanical glitches in the $5,400 machines, so they will properly dispense food.

Barrett called them "cashier-less distribution points."

"Vending machine has a negative connotation," he said.

Tina Bennett, spokeswoman for Horizon Software International, said the machines also serve to decrease lunch-line waits.

"Some students skip lunch because the lines are longer," she said.

Students also have the option of paying for food using their student identification number, charging the cost to a student account accessible via the online ParentBridge program. Using MealpayPlus, parents will be able to add money to an account online or over the phone via the school district’s ParentBridge program.

"They can get a healthy snack at any time, and they don’t even have to have money on them," Barrett said.

There are several schools in Florida piloting the machines, but District 51 is the first in the nation to use Horizon’s machines with the MealpayPlus program, Bennett said.