Matoaka’s Healthy Lifestyle and Local Produce Program, headed up by Matoaka parents Michelle Alexander and Tryna Fitzpatrick, was recently mentioned in Virginia Teacher, a statewide magazine aimed at local educators. Read the article online “The Lunch Room Renaissance” in the March/April 2012 Edition.
“The Lunch Room Renaissance” by Brandy Centolanza is reprinted here with permission from Virginia Teacher Magazine. Click Here to visit Virginia Teacher
The Lunch Room Renaissance
As part of the continuing effort to combat childhood obesity and promote healthier eating, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced new nutrition standards for school lunch programs in January, though school divisions in Virginia have been working to improve their menus for years now.
Some of the new guidelines for schools participating in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs include requiring schools to serve more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and limit sodium and calories.
In the Norfolk Public Schools Division, “There has been a huge effort to improve the nutrition quality as well as the food quality,” says Helen Phillips, the division’s senior director for school nutrition and president of the School Nutrition Association. Among the strides Norfolk has made has been switching to “whole muscle meats” and offering whole grain breads, pastas and rice, as well as fat free flavored milk containing no high fructose corn syrup.
“The trend has been moving more toward whole grains and more fruits and vegetables,” Phillips says. “We are real excited about the changes we’ve made. We think it’s evident with the students and the parents.”
Cathy Alexander, executive director of child nutrition services for Newport News Public Schools, says she and her staff have also begun incorporating whole grains into their menu, including pizza with whole grain crust.
“We try to offer the kids foods that we know they will eat in a healthier form,” Alexander says. “We try to offer more options so that kids will try different things. That is the goal. We are offering a lot more choices than we used to. We offer a vegetarian option every day in every school. We offer different salad options every day.”
Over in the Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools Division, “Items have not been eliminated, but restructured,” shares Jane Haley, supervisor of child nutrition. “The pizza is a whole grain pizza, burgers are low sodium, canned fruits are in natural juice, and all cereals are whole grain. Manufacturers have reduced or eliminated trans fat in most products.”
Fryers are gone from cafeterials in Chesterfield County Public Schools near Richmond, and everything there is now baked, including french fries, which are now served less frequently. Improvements there have been slow but steady, due in part to the hesitation of some students to try new menu items.
“It’s hard for students to accept huge changes all at once,” points out Sandy Stokes, a nutritionist with the school district. “We are trying to find that balance with nutrition and what is good tasting and acceptable to the kids palates.”
Many school divisions offer free samples to students as a way to introduce them to new foods. “We try to encourage taste testing” says Phillips. “There are a lot of fruits and vegetables that may be new to students. If you have never seen fresh asparagus before, it might be scary.”
“We try to offer more options so that kids
will try different things. That is the goal.”
Thanks to grant money, six schools in Newport News offer fresh fruits and vegetables to students as a snack three times a week.
“I’ve had students who don’t know what things like pears are because they aren’t exposed,” says Alexander. “The idea is to get them to pick up an apple or a banana as a snack instead of a bag of chips or a piece of candy.”
A similar program is in place in Chesterfield County. “The students get to try a new fruit or vegetable and then also learn a lesson about that fruit or vegetable,” says Warren Grigg, food and nutrition services director. “It’s a real learning experience. Some students take pineapple chunks from the cafeteria but never knew what a whole pineapple looked like. It’s been a great program. The teachers and students get really excited about it and have a lot of fun with it.”
At Matoaka Elementay School in James City County, a healthy lifestyle committee of parents has partnered with Kelrae Farms in Toano to bring in fresh fruits and vegetables to share with students during their lunch hour as part of the Local Produce Initiative started by the school district’s School Health Initiative Program (SHIP).
“Many children and parents have expressed appreciation for the program as it allowed students to be exposed to a variety of food items that they might not have otherwise experienced,” explains Tryna Fitzpatrick, healthy lifestyles committee co-chair. “This was most evident a few months ago when fresh, local kale was offered in the cafeteria. Parents reported that children really liked the dish and requested that it be made for dinner at home.”
“I’ve had students who don’t know what things like
pears are because they aren’t exposed. The idea is to get
them to pick up an apple or a banana as a snack instead
of a bag of chips or a piece of candy.”
Though expense does factor in when planning school menus, schools officials have gotten creative in order to boost sales. The added costs have “created some challenges,” admits Alexander, but, in addition to the taste testing, “We work on eye appeal,” she says. “We try to make foods look more appealing, and we ask our servers to think about how they are presenting their fruits and vegetables, how they are presenting their line. Presentation makes all the difference.”
Adds Phillips: “Whole grain foods do cost more, and fresh produce does cost more than canned or frozen. It is hard to balance nutrition integrity with the bottom line. We try to make the menu kid-friendly to get them in the cafeteria. I also believe strongly in role modeling. Teachers are role models too and it’s important that they view our foods positively It means a lot to the kids to see teachers eating the school lunches too. That really helps our program.”