School Lunches Get a Makeover

healthy school lunch optionsChipper kindergarteners bounce into the cafeteria at Portlock Primary School in Chesapeake, giddy at the opportunity to take a break from their lessons, chat with friends and, best of all, eat. What’s on the menu for today? Rest assured it’s not sloppy joes and tater tots; iconic school lunches of yesteryear such as those now belong in the history books. Instead, modern cafeterias are cooking up something new.

Nutritional awareness has been growing in recent decades, and that trend has spilled over into school meals. Wellness advocates cheered passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which ties federal funds for children’s meals in public schools to higher nutrition standards. The result in the cafeteria line is an array of foods that barely resemble those offered in the past. Not only are today’s meals healthier, but the shift in priorities is motivating many local school divisions to create new initiatives to encourage better eating. Some wonder whether the government’s reach is having unintended effects, resulting in stomachs that are empty instead of being filled with wholesome food. But those on both sides of the lunch line can agree on one thing: the school cafeteria isn’t what it used to be.

One change is in variety. Today at Portlock Primary School, for example, those hungry kindergarteners have a lot of choices to make. They can select a chicken drumstick, hot ham and cheese sandwich or a grilled chicken salad for an entree. Options for sides include baby carrots, fresh oranges, diced pears and peaches and a three-bean salad. The milk is similarly colorful, with chocolate, strawberry and plain, old white. The children waste little time making up their minds; they seem ready to dig in.

Healthy School lunchesAll their trays are full, but remarkably, each one is different. A drumstick, oranges and chocolate milk here. Ham and cheese, peaches and white milk there. Regardless of what the children have chosen, however, all of them appear to have a balanced, full meal.

According to Joanne Kinsey, director of school nutrition services for Chesapeake Public Schools, what may not be so noticeable as the youngsters scurry along is that these lunches also meet legal requirements. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act covers a lot of ground, declaring who is eligible for free or reduced-price meals, for instance, and framing a system of audits for school cafeterias. But the crux of the nutritional component—determining which foods will be on kids’ plates—is based on a basic model.

The Food Pyramid of yore, that triangle cluttered with enough victuals for an army, became MyPlate in 2011, a much simpler diagram created and promoted by the United States Department of Agriculture. A plate is divided into four colored sections, each with a one-word descriptor. “Fruits” and “Vegetables” take up one half, “Grains” and “Protein” the other. A round cup for “Dairy” rests to the side. There are no dead fish or sheaves of wheat to be found.

“That’s the backbone of what we have to follow,” Kinsey says. The trays children carry out of lunch lines today are based on that paradigm: protein, whole grain, fruits and veggies, milk. The amount of food is scaled depending on the size children who will be eating it, Kinsey says, because adolescents need more than young kids. But the proportions of food in each category stay the same.

Because they have so many kids to serve so quickly—Chesapeake Public Schools serves 16,500 lunches and more than 7,500 breakfasts every day—school nutrition staff have tools at their disposal to make sure that they’re providing those well-rounded meals the law requires. Technology helps; after kids make their way down the line, for instance, an attendant enters their choices onto a touch screen. If little Carlos is missing one piece of a balanced lunch, the monitor says so, and the attendant suggests he take something that will complete his tray.

Chesapeake Portlock Primary school lunchesCafeteria managers crunch numbers every week to make sure that their menus fall in line with federal regulations. Meal planners use those results to tweak the offerings. An ongoing challenge, according to Kinsey, is that “there are new benchmarks to meet every year.”

Among the goals nutrition departments must meet for the 2014–2015 school year is reducing the amount of sodium kids consume (guidelines specify less than 1,230 milligrams in these kindergarteners’ lunches). Another aim is providing what the USDA calls “Smart Snacks in School,” or making healthier options, such as baked bagged chips, available a la carte in the lunch line, in vending machines and in fundraisers, because, as Kinsey points out, the regulations apply to any food offered to children throughout the school day, not just in the cafeteria.

Nevertheless, detractors insist that the new rules are hard to stomach. Nutrition guidelines created by bureaucrats and supported by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move anti-childhood obesity campaign do anything but keep children healthy and hunger-free, critics say. Tech-savvy high-schoolers took to social media and YouTube to express their discontent, producing a parody of a song called “We Are Young” by the band Fun that the students renamed “We Are Hungry,” complete with a video exaggerating the lethargy they claimed was brought about by skimpy meals.

Other opponents insist that giving children foods that adults themselves rarely eat, instead of those more commonly found in 21st-century homes, leads to increased waste. Kids are just chucking the healthy stuff in favor of more familiar foods.

But Kinsey says those criticisms don’t add up. For one, school meals meet portion sizes—kids can have up to five items off the lunch menu—that both the non-governmental Institute of Medicine and the USDA “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” say provides ample calories.

What’s more, there has been no appreciable difference in the amount of food being discarded. Kinsey says there will always be some food waste, both when food service personnel throw out portions they didn’t serve and when kids toss food they didn’t eat. Nutrition staff members just have to know how to manage that, Kinsey says, and there are reliable tricks and tips to minimize uneaten food.

“When you get the lines moving as quickly as possible, you don’t have kids throwing as much food away,” says Kinsey. For better or worse, lunch is over in a blink—less than 30 minutes in most cases—and a long line cuts into the amount of time a child can devote to eating.

The need for speed is apparent as attendants in Portlock’s cafeteria prod kindergarteners: “Alright, baby, go on ahead. OK, honey, let’s move on out,” one worker says as the line zips right along.

Another tactic is all those options laid out before them, giving the students plenty to choose from, but more importantly, ownership of their meals, the so-called “offer” versus “serve” concept. The students are actively selecting specific foods, says Kinsey, “so hopefully if they choose it, they will eat it.”

Healthy school lunch options at Portlock Primary School Chesapeake

Presentation matters, too. The fruit should be fresh, the colors bright, of course, but servers must provide the foods in a way age groups are likeliest to eat it. Take a whole orange, for instance. That may be just what high-schoolers want for a fruit serving, because they might only have time to stick it in a backpack for later. Not so for the little ones. Give them a whole orange and it will go in the trash because they can’t peel it. When kindergarteners choose a quartered orange, on the other hand, chances are good they will eat it.

All this thinking about food has spawned creative initiatives designed to make healthy eating a little easier. For Chesapeake Public Schools, a federal Farm to School grant allowed the division to partner with Five Points Community Farm Market in Norfolk to help provide students with fresh foods grown on nearby farms.

But Kinsey and her colleagues are not alone in their desire to find new ways to incorporate wholesome meals into school menus. On the Peninsula, a partnership between Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools and the Williamsburg Health Foundation allowed the division to hire a professional chef to help jazz up school menus while making them healthier at the same time.

Pam Dannon, a nutritionist with WJCC schools, says that many children have the expectation that their meals should be novel and exciting, so bringing in professional chef Marie Homer seemed a natural fit. Homer’s “energy and creativity brings a whole new dimension to the school cafeteria,” Dannon says.

With the partnership, the division has been able to try new recipes and sponsor cook-off challenges. School nutrition staff solicited feedback from the public, allowing taste-tests for adults at the Williamsburg Farmers Market and bringing in student panels after school. All that back-and-forth resulted in two new items on the menu: a Jamaican jerk chicken bowl and zesty fajita chicken over Tex-Mex rice, both popular menu items.

Back in Chesapeake, as Portlock’s kindergarteners finish their meals, Kinsey says that all these changes are not just about satisfying distant bureaucrats. It’s more personal and immediate, because the food service personnel here and in school cafeterias across the region are charged with giving children one of their most fundamental needs. And that, says Kinsey, translates to achievement outside the cafeteria’s walls: “Our mission supports the school system as a whole and, ultimately, the children’s academic success.”

Packing your child’s lunch instead? View some healthy meal options for school lunches you can make at home!

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