Schools Re-Tool

School meals aren’t what they used to be. Despite student lament, that’s a good thing.

Students in every grade may soon be longing for the “good old days.” For example, Kelly Green, a student at Mill Creek Elementary School in St. Augustine, Fla., no longer gets the waffles, pancakes and sweetened cereals that she loved eating for breakfast last year in her school cafeteria. This year, instead, she is served whole-wheat bread, low-fat cheese and fruit.

Does she like it? “I want to go back to the old menu,” says the fourth-grader. “We had better food last year.” But she may be out of luck. Mill Creek, in St. Johns County School District, is one of six schools taking part in a study by the Agatston Research Institute, founded by Dr. Arthur Agatston, the author of “The South Beach Diet.” Its goal is to figure out whether school cafeterias are capable of serving more nutritious food, whether kids will eat it and whether their health will improve.

The effort is just one example of how schools across the nation are revamping school breakfast and lunch menus in an effort to comply with state-legislated guidelines, adhere to the advice of scores of nutritional professionals, and, before long, create a student body healthier than its recent predecessors.

The long run: “We’re not putting the children on the South Beach Diet,” said Danielle Hollar, deputy director of research at the institute. “We’re trying to provide healthier options for these children, and in the long run we hope they learn to eat healthier and incorporate that into their daily living.”

The 3,000 students in the study haven’t been put on the low-carb diet per se, though many of the diet’s guiding principles have been incorporated into school menus. Whole wheat bread has replaced white bread; white potatoes gave way to sweet potatoes. French fries disappeared, and grilled chicken took the place of breaded chicken. And what’s for dessert? Fruit.

The students were “a little bit slow catching on (to the new menus), but now they seem to be enjoying the meals,” says Jean Palmore, foodservice director for Osceola County School District (also a study participant). Four of the schools have changed their menus and the other two are being used as controls with unchanged menus.

It was rough going at first. As many as half of the students at the test schools didn’t eat their lunches at the beginning of the year. Now just 15% are in that category after tweaks to the menu and weeks of exposure.

Not very veggie: “We tried a veggie burger, but that was not a popular thing,” Palmore notes. “We had some problems with breakfast because traditionally we have pancakes and waffles and bagels. The kids can’t have any of those now.”

On a recent day, the difference in menus between a test school and control school was apparent. Pleasant Hill Elementary School, a control school, served onion rings as a side dish with its choice of chicken or egg salad; meanwhile, Mill Creek Elementary School served veggie sticks with dip.

“They’re trying some other foods that they haven’t tried before,” says Laurel Hagood, dean of Mill Creek, where 65% of the 938 students get free or reduced-price lunches.

Besides initial student resistance, the biggest obstacle has been access to healthier ingredients. The school district is part of a buying group with other districts that have a long-term contract with a food distributor. Most schools, for example, aren’t ordering whole-wheat pasta.

In addition, the shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables is shorter than frozen or canned items, making it difficult sometimes to buy in bulk. “Produce is more expensive and perishable and you don’t get the yield on those items that you get from canned items,” Palmore points out.

Stepping up: Food distributors should respond to demand for fruits, vegetables and whole grains in school diets, states Lynn Parker, director of child nutrition programs at the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based public interest group.

Some school districts around the nation have started farm-to-school programs that rely on local growers. While many schools have been lowering the fat content and offering more fruits and vegetables, they still have a way to go, according to Parker.

“There is a strong interest on the part of many schools to do better and I think that’s because of pressure from parents,” Parker says. “Many parents across the country are trying to make changes in their own meals at home and are concerned about childhood obesity, having well-nourished children and preventing chronic diseases later in life.”

Your turn: What can you do, as a foodservice operator, to keep kids interested in a school meal menu rich in “good for you foods” and devoid of the “fun but fattening favorites?”

Fruit and vegetables can be your saving grace. They add color and crunch, flavor and fluid to soups, salads, side dishes, beverages and desserts. Any part of a meal can be made a little prettier or tastier with the addition of a slice of tomato or a wedge of watermelon.

Sell the kids on the color. Sell the parents by pointing out that people who consistently eat at least five to 10 servings of fruit or vegetables a day have a reduced incidence of cancer and cardiovascular disease. In a large study involving 15 international health care agencies, officials concluded that the “consumption of five or more servings of a variety of vegetables and fruit could decrease overall cancer incidence by at least 20%.” Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, fluid and fiber—all important in the fight against many chronic and debilitating diseases. 

The more fruit and vegetables on the menu, the less fat, salt and calories. Fruit and vegetables can be easily incorporated into meals and snacks, replacing the higher-calorie, low-nutrient ingredients:

In the morning, add chopped fresh apples or pears to cooked cereals, or fresh or frozen berries and sliced bananas to cold cereal—and hold the sugar. Offer a fruit smoothie with several different types of fruit. Mash ripe bananas and thinly slice fresh apples, peaches or pears onto the morning toast or muffin; hold the butter, margarine and jelly. Toss a bag of mixed dried fruit or a fresh orange or tangerine into a box lunch instead of chips.

Add fresh, canned, frozen or dried fruit to yogurt for a quick snack or lunch. Offer sandwiches with the “works”: sliced tomatoes, lettuce, onions, cucumbers, sprouts and evenly thinly sliced carrots and radishes.  Indulge your charges in an occasional banana split, made with low-fat ice milk or yogurt and heaped with sliced bananas, frozen berries, sliced peaches and dried fruit.

Add sliced fresh or frozen strawberries or raspberries, or chopped fresh oranges, to salad dressings; the fruit akes the place of much of the oil in salad dressing recipes. Green salads benefit from lots of ingredients, including cooked, chilled green peas or wax or green beans, shredded carrots, radishes, red cabbage, baby spinach, etc. The more flavorful the salad, the less dressing is needed.