School lunches add color
By Jeanne Millsap Correspondent December 31, 2012 12:26PM
School lunches at Channahon grade schools have almost completely gotten away from desserts, except for fruit. | Jeanne Millsap ~ For Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 3, 2013 6:12AM
Gone are the cinnamon rolls, cookies, fried chicken nuggets and anything else fried for that matter, and here to stay are baked whole wheat nuggets, pizza with whole grain crust, healthful turkey wraps, black beans, apples and orange juice.
School lunches of yesteryear, laden with sugar, fat and refined white flour, might only be found in schools in history textbooks today — not in the cafeterias.
Nutrition requirements for lunch programs have taken a huge turn toward the healthy just in the past three or four years, edged in by federal congressional wellness policies and the passage of state laws that require school districts adhere to recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What all this means to kids today is better health, good examples of well-balanced meals and possibly even better attention in class and higher scores on tests.
“We are teaching our students lifelong healthy habits,” said Angela Stallion, principal of N.B. Galloway and Pioneer Path schools in Channahon.
“What it was when we went to school is very different than today. Today, we set examples of what a healthy meal looks like and what portion sizes should be. We spend a lot more effort on what the nutritional values of our lunches are. Today, we don’t have cookies for dessert. Fruit is our dessert,” Stallion said.
Stallion is on the wellness committee of the district and has had a special interest in student wellness, both nutritional and physical, for several years, even including research papers on the subject in her post-graduate work.
The new guidelines are more rigorous, she said, and are for the best.
They also have made the job of Beth Thelo, the district’s food service director, much more complicated this year, but she couldn’t be happier about it.
Thelo said the new nutritional requirements for school lunches add a few hurdles to her meal-planning calculations, but the many benefits it gives to the students far outweigh the extra calculator work she may have to perform.
“There are quite a few new requirements,” she said.
The biggest emphasis is now placed on dark green vegetables, Thelo said, such as raw broccoli served with a little ranch dressing and salads using romaine and spinach leaves rather than iceberg lettuce.
Other recommendations for the veggies are items Thelo has yet to try with the kids for budgetary reasons or because she knows from experience they will end up in the trash can, such as bok choy, chard and asparagus.
School lunches must also have a red or orange vegetable every week, such as sweet potato tots, a food new to the district’s lunches this year and one that Thelo says is catching on with the kids.
“They’re oven-baked,” she said, “and very addicting.”
Lunches must also have a weekly serving from the beans/peas category, such as black beans, refried beans or baked beans. As is common with kids, they don’t always like to try new things, Thelo said, but sometimes, after a few tries, her students find they like something they’ve never tried before.
“We tried black bean salad with beans, corn, cilantro and onions one time,” she said. “The adults loved it, but the kids definitely did not. We tried turkey wraps this year, too, and they didn’t like them either. I recently took them off the menu.”
Other changes for the healthier went virtually unnoticed by the students.
They didn’t seem to care, for instance, when the school switched to non-fat chocolate milk or lowered the regular milk to 1 percent fat. The breaded chicken products, such as nuggets and patties, now use whole grain breading and are eaten with the same gusto as the all-white breading.
The whole-grain pizza crust does have a bit of a flavor of the grains, Thelo, but the kids love it anyway.
The district’s cafeterias don’t even have deep fryers anymore. Nothing is fried, and there are no trans fats in any products. There is lower fat and salt and sugar in the foods, less meat, and more legumes, vegetables, and fruits, following the “Choose My Plate” recommendations by the USDA. Even the corn dogs are turkey with a whole-grain breading. Desserts are an occasional Rice Krispie treat or graham crackers or, much more often, fruit.
“It’s a little bit more challenging as far as menu planning goes,” Thelo said, “but it’s absolutely good for the kids. There’s no doubt about that. We hope we are also changing the way they think. By trying these foods and using these lunches as an example of a healthy meal, we hope they will incorporate more healthy food choices in their lives.”