School nutrition: Healthier ingredients, more education for 2010-11

School nutrition has advanced for the 2010-11 school year as parents, children, and government programs push healthy menu options.

By , Staff writer

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    Chef Cat Cora, right, cuts greens with Matthew Louhman, from Hollin Meadows Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., as they prepare a salad from the harvest from the White House Kitchen Garden, June 4, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. First lady Michelle Obama called on chefs to get involved by adopting a school and working with teachers, parents, school nutritionists and administrators to help educate kids about food and nutrition.
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Schools searching for ways to improve school nutrition are starting to get sneaky.

"Replace three-quarters of the fat in baked goods with pureed beans and the kids don’t even notice!” according to a tip from an awarding-winning elementary school in Idaho.

That delicious-smelling breakfast sausage? It’s turkey. And that pizza crust that doesn’t have a hint of healthy-looking brown in its coloring? Fooled ya’ – chances are it’s made of nutritious whole grains. Even salads are getting a makeover, with cafeterias gradually increasing the percentage of heartier greens mixed into the crispy iceberg lettuce kids are used to.

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The School Nutrition Association (SNA) reports progress as students head back to school. According to a new survey completed by nutrition directors in 538 districts around the country:

  • 95 percent are increasing whole-grain offerings
  • 90 percent are providing more fresh fruits and vegetables
  • 69 percent are reducing sodium
  • 66 percent are reducing added sugar
  • 67 percent of those with vending services are making healthier drinks more available

Among the new menu items schools are serving up for 2010-11: jicama, star fruit, sweet potato puffs, collard greens, edamame, egg-white omelets, and fish tacos.

A new website from the SNA, www.TrayTalk.org, educates parents about healthy school meals and highlights innovative approaches around the country.

Along with sneaking healthier ingredients into foods, schools are trying more open tactics.

In Somerville, Mass., school children find their science lessons linked to the “Vegetable of the Month” campaign, featuring colorful posters with nutritional and cultural information on everything from beans to broccoli (“Broccoli was invented by an Italian family by crossing cauliflower seeds with pea seeds.”)

In Norfolk, Va., kids weigh-in on food options. “We’re real excited about our menu this year – we did a lot of student taste-testing last year, and our goal is to [eventually] have a 100 percent student-selected, student-approved menu,” says Helen Phillips, senior director of school nutrition at Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia and SNA’s president-elect.

Items being added based on the Norfolk children’s taste buds include hummus dip for baby carrots and a pasta salad made of whole-grain rotini and garbanzo beans. And in addition to the standard fresh fruits and veggies, students this year will be able to nosh on cucumber spears, red and green pepper strips, strawberries, and blueberries.

The pre-prepared food industry is helping too, responding to consumer demand and possible national legislation requiring better nutrition standards in schools, Ms. Phillips says. A lot more low-sodium products are available, along with a wider variety of frozen fruits and vegetables, the next-best thing to fresh.

Healthier options don’t come cheap, however. In Norfolk, they’ve looked for efficiencies and made staffing changes to be able to afford the new menu options. And for the 36 percent of students that have to pay for their meals because their family income is high enough, the cost is up 10 cents from last year.

In 2009, the average school meal cost between $1.87 and $2.13, the SNA reports.

First Lady Michelle Obama has brought new energy to the issue this year with her “Let’s Move” campaign to reduce childhood obesity.

Schools are a major stage for the campaign, with more than 31 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program.

As part of “Let’s Move,” the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its local partners have set a goal this year to double the number of schools that meet the HealthierUS School Challenge, which sets voluntary high standards for meals, physical activity, and nutrition education.

Since the original program started in 2004, 790 schools have received recognition. In March, the USDA added monetary incentives ranging from $500 to $2,000 for the awards.

School districts that aren’t on the leading edge may soon have to accelerate their efforts. Earlier this month, the Senate passed a $4.5 billion school nutrition law that requires healthier meals and snacks. A similar bill is pending in the House, and specific regulations on ingredients would be determined by the USDA.

Massachusetts is one state that’s not waiting for Congress’s nudge. This July it created a new law applying nutritional standards to food sold at vending machines, carts, and school stores. That means kids should see a lot less junk food and sugary drinks – with some exceptions for fund-raisers. The law also supports more use of local, farm-fresh produce in school meals and snacks.

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