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EDUCATION: Students get more fruit, vegetables for lunch

The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.


Dec. 03--More apples, squash sticks and whole-grain breads are showing up on school cafeteria trays under new public school nutrition rules that require extra fruit, vegetables and whole grains.

But are kids actually eating the healthy stuff?

That's a question school nutrition directors would like to answer.

"I get the healthy stuff, but I liked it when they treat us to the unhealthy stuff," Emonnie Jones, an eighth-grader at Gage Middle School in Riverside, said as she squirted dressing on her dark green salad. She also planned to eat the corn on the cob and fresh fruit on her tray.

But a nearby trash can contained unopened bags of baby carrots, whole pears, apples, oranges, still-steaming cups of Mexican-style beans and broccoli that some students dumped on their way from the serving line to the lunch tables.

Emonnie, like many of her classmates, said she missed juice at lunch. School districts that adopted the changes early say students have grown to like the healthier fare.

Students in most districts haven't objected to whole-grain breads, buns, rolls, pasta and rice, but are split over whether they will eat the fruit and vegetables now on their plates.

The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update school meal nutrition standards to combat the national obesity epidemic. The legislation, which went into effect this school year, was the most comprehensive change to school lunches in more than a generation, according to a brochure Riverside Unified School District created to explain the changes to parents.

For school lunch programs to receive USDA reimbursement, students must receive at least one serving of fruit and a vegetable, said Riverside Nutrition Services Director Rodney Taylor. It's not enough for schools to just put out apples or pears for students to take if they want. The cafeteria staff must make sure students have the foods on their trays.

At high schools, workers put vegetables and fruit on students' plates, said Jill Lancaster, director of nutrition services for Murrieta Valley Unified School District.

"It doesn't make sense to argue with a 6-foot 2 football player," she said. "At the elementary schools, we can tell a kid to grab an apple or banana, whereas a football player will look at you and go 'Oh really?'"

The cafeteria revenue comes from the USDA and what students pay. Cafeteria budgets are separate from schools' other funds.

Fruit and vegetable servings must be at least half a cup. The national school lunch program also requires weekly servings of different kinds of vegetables: dark green, red or orange, beans or peas, starchy and other vegetables.

Flavored milk, such as chocolate or strawberry milk, must be nonfat. White milk can have no more than 1 percent fat.

The new dietary guidelines also set minimums and maximums for calories and portion sizes for proteins and grains. The portion sizes vary for elementary, middle and high school students.

The daily serving size of meat or meat alternative has decreased. Grains this year must be at least half whole-grain rich, which the USDA defines as at least 51 percent whole grains. In 2013-14, they must all be whole-grain rich. In 2014-15, sodium will be limited too, Taylor said

Taylor said a few parents complained that their children disliked the food at the start of the school year. Lunch sales dropped slightly (he estimated 3 percent) but are increasing again. More complaints came from high school boys, who were used to larger portion sizes, he said. He's not heard any complaints from elementary schools, where students have eaten from salad bars supplied with fresh local produce for years.

Likewise, Murrieta Valley Unified School District has seen its sales drop slightly, maybe less than 5 percent, Lancaster said. She said a price increase probably contributed to the drop.

Parents support the healthier meals, she said, but they don't see the waste that school principals and custodians complain about.

"We've spent nearly twice as much on produce this year," Lancaster said.

Murrieta Valley cafeteria workers also spend more time preparing meals on tasks such as cutting up watermelon, Lancaster said.

She said her department could trim costs by reducing choices but is committed to offering different fruits and vegetable each day. Food service directors said students are more likely to eat their fruit and vegetables if they get to choose them.

They also said they have tried to make many of the changes invisible to students, such as putting vegetables underneath entrees such as teriyaki chicken.

Manufacturers also now supply school districts with white whole wheat products that students don't seem to have noticed and that taste better than earlier versions that Lancaster compared to cardboard.

In Riverside, Gage seventh-grader Jared Gravett said the hamburger and sandwich buns taste better this year.

Hemet Unified has been baking its own buns, whole-grain pizza crust, rolls and muffins from the new, soft whole-grain flour. It has developed muffin recipes that replace oil with applesauce to lower the fat content and meet new dietary guidelines, Nutrition Services Director Brad Knipsheer said.

The district started working with local farmers four or five years ago and Hemet students now are accustomed to fresh kiwi, persimmons and edemame, as well as such staples as apples, oranges and bananas, he said.

Taylor said he wants to study how much food is wasted, but he expects that students will get used to the changes.

Gage Middle School Principal Pablo Sanchez said he and his staff already see less food being wasted than at the beginning of the school year.

Students already have grown accustomed to healthy lunches in districts such as Hemet and Corona-Norco that made the changes a year or two ago.

Corona-Norco Child Nutrition Director Betsy Adams said she hears parents say their children now request fresh spinach on their salads at restaurants because they learned to like it at school.

Students, especially younger ones, don't question smaller portions of meat and grains and larger portions of fruit and vegetables, she said.

"The whole culture is changing," Adams said. "I'm proud of our program. I think we're doing a good job."


(c)2012 The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, Calif.)

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