The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


September 12, 2012

School lunches add more fruits, veggies; set calorie limits

JOPLIN, Mo. — Rylie Caten can tell there is something different about his school lunches, but he is not sure exactly what it is. The seventh-grader at South Middle School in Joplin said he can tell a difference in cafeteria meals between now and a year ago. The slices of pizza (his favorite) are a little bit bigger and everything generally tastes a lot better — especially the french fries.

“They are a lot softer, instead of being really hard and crunchy,” Caten said.

Karen Maturino, a fourth-grader at West Central Elementary School, is fond of the sweet potato tots as long as she can add a condiment to them.

“If you get a lot of catsup on them you can make them taste like regular tots,” she said.

And kindergarten students Nathan Maynard and Virgil Sargent just know that they like what is being served on their trays.

“I like the pizza and the ice cream,” Virgil said.

For Becky Baird and Rick Kenkel, the positive reviews from students have to be encouraging news as they implement new federal guidelines that call for increases in fruits and vegetables. Baird, who is the supervisor of food services at the Carthage R-9 School District, and Kenkel, director of food services at the Joplin School District, know that the federal guidelines regarding school lunches aren’t going to change the way people eat overnight. They might not even change eating habits in the next five years, but both Baird and Kenkel hope that in time the types of meals being served in school cafeterias across the country will lead to overall healthier eating habits.

New Department of Agriculture guidelines taking effect this fall set calorie and sodium limits for school meals. Schools must offer dark green, orange or red vegetables and legumes at least once a week, and students are required to select at least one vegetable or fruit per meal. Flavored milk must be nonfat, and there’s a ban on artificial, artery-clogging trans fats.

The bulk of the changes to school lunches center around the amount of fruits and vegetables served students. In the past, elementary school lunches were required to contain three-fourths a cup of fruits or vegetables. The new guidelines require that students are served at least three-fourths a cup of vegetables and a half-cup of fruit. In high school cafeterias the requirement is one cup of fruit and one cup of vegetables served to each student.

The guidelines also break down vegetables into five different subgroups: dark green, which includes vegetables like broccoli, kale, romaine lettuce and spinach; starches like corn, green beans and potatoes; red and orange such as squash, red peppers, sweet potatoes and tomatoes; beans and peas such as black beans, kidney beans and navy beans; and a final subgroup that includes vegetables like artichokes, asparagus, mushrooms and green peppers.

Kenkel said that while the government reviews and sometimes tweaks school lunch requirements every two years, this is the first major revision of the school lunch program in some 15 years. He said the Joplin district was already moving in the direction the new guidelines are taking school cafeterias.

“Two years ago we took part in the Healthier School Challenge and so we kind of implemented it (the new guidelines) two years ago,” he said.

Baird said the challenge for food service directors is to prepare meals that not only are healthy but are also attractive to students.

“We don’t want to just put food on the tray that meets the requirements, we want them to eat the food,” she said.

On a recent school day, food service workers at McKinley Elementary School in Joplin were preparing a lunch featuring hamburgers, tater tots, small cups of salad with lettuce, cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks with ranch dressing and a cup of applesauce.

Pointing to the whole wheat buns that the hamburgers would be served on, Kenkel said it will take more than just healthier school lunches to change the country’s eating habits.

“How many restaurants will offer you a burger on a whole wheat bun?” he asked.

Both Baird and Kenkel said that in the end, it will be up to society as a whole to make significant changes in the country’s eating habits. And it’s possible that change will come in part because of today’s school children.

“The hope is to get them into the habit of eating healthier,” Baird said.

Even if your child doesn’t eat in the school cafeteria, health experts are urging parents to pack healthier lunches. Here are some ideas from Parents Magazine that incorporate more vegetables and grains.

Shake-up salads are easy. Simply layer salad ingredients in a plastic container that your child can shake up when he or she is ready to eat.

Mandarin chicken

1/2 cup drained mandarin oranges

1/3 cup shredded cooked chicken breast

1/3 cup steamed broccoli

1/4 cup chow mein noodles

Layer ingredients in plastic container and shake when ready to eat.

Macaroni salad

1/4 cup pizza sauce

1 cup cooked elbow macaroni

1/3 cup defrosted frozen peas and carrots

1/4 cup diced mozzarella cheese

Layer ingredients in plastic container and shake when ready to eat.

Taco salad

1/4 cup salsa

1/3 cup rinsed black beans

3/4 cup chopped lettuce

1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

1/3 cup baked tortilla chips, broken

Layer ingredients in plastic container and shake when ready to eat.

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