Schools offer healthier lunch options
TRI-COUNTY AREA—Obesity is a growing problem in today’s younger generation.
One place where children and teenagers can learn to eat healthy is at school. However, there are roadblocks food program managers and districts face in accomplishing that goal, including students actually making those choices and the costs associated with buying healthier food.
Penn Yan’s Cafeteria Manager Dana Burton said the district already implements parts of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. She explained Penn Yan students get up to five food choices for lunch, which includes milk. She said they have switched to one percent milk or less, increased the whole grains used in foods, and doubled fruit serving sizes (from one-fourth of a cup to half a cup).
Burton said meal options this year will include all white meat chicken nuggets with whole grain breading, low fat macaroni and cheese, and other lunch time regulars like pizza and tacos.
“They’re healthy versions of their favorite things,” she said.
Burton explained the cafeteria monitors what students eat and what they throw away to know what to serve. She said costs are high enough due to health insurance and benefits without wasting money on food the students don’t like.
Cafeteria Manager Kathy Galliher said Dundee uses a nutritional program to make sure what the district offers is at a certain level of healthiness.
Lunches this year will include hamburgers, ham and cheese sandwiches, pizza, beef raviolis with Italian bread, and various vegetable sides. Dundee also offers peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, salads, and fresh fruit daily. Additional servings and items are available at extra cost.
Dundee has also experienced some issues with getting children to eat better. “Does a lot go in the garbage? Yes,” said Galliher. She added it would help students make better choices if they weren’t being told to do so.
Lisa Zema, Hammondsport cafeteria manager, said the school district has already started implementing healthier food options before recent proposed regulations. Zema said students choose any five items for lunch, including the main meal, sides, and a drink. She added the New York State Education Department mandates there be five different choices. Zema said students can also pick from the salad bar, six inch subs, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. One percent or less is the only kinds of milk offered. Zema explained fat free chocolate and strawberry milk is also available.
She said the school is using Choose Sensibly Guidelines when offering snacks. Foods must have no more than: seven grams of total fat, two grams of saturated fat, 360 milligrams of sodium, and 15 grams of sugar. Zema said Hammondsport offers yogurt, fruit, ice cream, and even Little Debbie snacks that fit this description. Outside of the cafeteria, Hammondsport also only has water or flavored water in vending machines.
Zema added that part of the problem is even though the cafeteria gives an apple to a student, if that person doesn’t want it they will throw it out once they’ve left the lunch line. She explained students coming into kindergarten already have eating habits established. She said if children are used to eating pizza and pop at home, that’s the sort of food they will want at school.
Another potential problem is the costs of purchasing healthier foods.
“Food costs money; good food costs more,” said Zema.
Hammondsport recently upped the price of meals by 15 cents at Zema’s request because of all the costs the cafeteria must pay. Breakfast, for all grade levels, will cost $1.25. Lunch for kindergarten to sixth grade will now be $1.65 and for grades seven to 12 will increase to $1.90.
Dave Cabel, GST BOCES regional food services director, explained he is in charge of 16 school districts’ food programs, including Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour. Both schools also have the same food services manager, Gigi Fusco.
Cabel explained BOCES has recently looked at all of their recipes for school lunches. He said they have tested them all, especially for fat and sugar content, and adjusted them. For example, he said foods this upcoming school year will have no more than 1,200 milligrams of sodium, down from 1,600 milligrams. He added that within 10 years that amount will be down to 700 milligrams.
Another change for the upcoming year is what type of bread is being offered. Cabel said at Watkins and Odessa-Montour, 95 percent of all bread has to be at least half whole wheat. He said by 2012-13 all bread products will be made mostly of whole wheat. That is not just bread slices, but rolls and pizza crusts. Cabel added only the high schools still offer one type of sub roll that is made of white bread.
The districts offer students several options to create a healthy lunch. Cabel explained there is a hot and cold entry every day. This includes spaghetti, bean and meat tacos/burritos, chicken penne primavera, macaroni and cheese, and chicken patties. He added students then have the option of three sides and a milk. He explained the sides include fruit, vegetables, and juice, but must be different entrees.
Of course, just providing the healthy options isn’t always enough. Cabel said GST BOCES has partnered with Cornell University to help “nudge kids to make better choices.” He said Cornell has done studies of what students eat and informed parents about choices students have made. He added that Cornell found an increase in the fruits and vegetables being eaten when more information was given to parents and students.
“Our concern is we feed the garbage can,” said Cabel. The districts can provide the better options, but that doesn’t guarantee a student won’t just throw out the food they don’t want. Fusco added that if a student says they do not want an item, the cafeteria staff tells them what the other options are so they still might be eating healthy.