More Produce Must Be on School Lunch Trays This Year

Jeffry Scott, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Posted Aug 13, 2012

Three days into a school year in the first Georgia school system to serve lunches under new federal nutrition guidelines, things were going smoothly with a small catch.

Sweet potatoes.

"No matter what we've tried, it hasn't worked," said Peggy Lawrence, nutrition director for Rockdale County public schools.

She was sitting in the cafeteria of Rockdale Career Academy as hundreds of teens lined up for food at a serving counter remade with a new facade and bright colors to resemble a mall food court. Faced with a new government emphasis on fruits, vegetables and legumes, she rattled off her attempts to make sweet potatoes edible sounding just like Forrest Gump listing every way to serve shrimp.

"We tried mashed," said Lawrence. "We tried baked. We tried fries. We tried fries sprinkled with cinnamon. We tried fries sprinkled with brown sugar." She smiled, exhaled and motioned around the room.

"Kids just didn't like sweet potatoes, but that doesn't mean we'll stop trying."

Similar evolutions in student food and efforts to expand the adolescent palate -- but not the waistline -- are taking place all over America and across metro Atlanta this year as kids head back to school.

More than 500,000 kids eat lunch in public school every day in metro Atlanta (DeKalb, Cobb, City of Atlanta, Fulton, Rockdale and Gwinnett school systems). This year they'll be exposed to more varieties of vegetables -- including sweet potatoes -- and fruits and salads than at any time since federally subsidized lunch programs began in the 1940s.

Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's New Meal Pattern (Nutrition Standards) for School Meals, which became effective July 1, calorie limits are set for meals: grades k-5, 550-650 calories; grades 6-8, 600-700 calories; grades 9-12, 750-850 calories. Schools must certify they are fulfilling the requirements and non-compilers risk losing subsidies.

Schools are required to serve larger portions of fruits and vegetables, and students must take at least one fruit or vegetable serving per meal. Schools must offer dark green vegetables, orange/red vegetables and legumes at least once a week, eliminate all added trans-fat and serve only 1 percent or nonfat milk. Under the new regulations all grains -- in breads and pastas -- must be "whole grain rich."

Strategies to win the hearts, minds and stomachs of kids differ from school system to school system. In Rockdale, schools are trying to introduce the new grub under the radar. They don't talk about it; they just serve it, said Lawrence, who is a national spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association.

"My thinking was, it will be more easily accepted if we didn't make a big deal about it," she said.

At Atlanta Public Schools, it's a different story since first lady Michelle Obama visited Burgess-Peterson Academy elementary school in East Atlanta last year, handing out fresh blueberry snacks and touring the school's organic garden to promote the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Georgia was an obvious choice; the state ranked No. 2 in the nation in childhood obesity according to a 2007 study.

As in most schools, APS students can still order pizza, submarine sandwiches, hamburgers and chicken nuggets at an a la cart stations in cafeterias. (The days of a single cafeteria line all but disappeared about 15 years ago). But there's increased emphasis now on fresh produce and where it came from. Atlanta schools get their collard greens from a grower in Valdosta.

"It's better nutrition and kids learn where food comes from, rather than food just being on their plate,"said Marilyn Hughes, APS director of Nutritional Programs.

Gwinnett County Schools won USDA awards for its farm-to-school program. Still, no matter where the food came from, you've still got to get fickle-palleted teens to eat it, said Ken Yant, director of school nutrition. While the new federal law requires kids to put vegetables and fruits on their lunch tray, it can't force them to swallow.

In Gwinnett, said Yant, the system is constantly testing dishes with students. They have to win 75 percent student test group approval to make the menu.

One dish that was a surprise hit: a watermelon chiller salad of watermelon, cucumber, orange and mint.

One that bombed: a watermelon, feta cheese and basil salad.

"Teachers loved it," said school system chef Rachel Petraglia. "Students didn't."

Students sent an Asian rice dish back to the kitchen.

"They thought the sauce needed to be sweeter and darker," said Petraglia.

In Week One in Rockdale, student Abigail Tryon, 15, gave a thumbs up to the food -- spaghetti and meat sauce, corn, french fries, an apple, whole grain roll, low-fat milk -- and the presentation.

"I like that we have more choices of vegetables than we had last year," she said. "And the cafeteria looks cleaner than a mall food court."

Sample of a high school lunch menu from Rockdale County

Spaghetti with meat sauce

Spinach salad

Seasoned corn

Citrus medley/pears & cherries

Homemade whole wheat roll

Lowfat or nofat milk

Fiestada pizza

In addition to the featured menu of the day, the following menu choices are available daily:

Freshly made pizza

Freshly made salads

Deli wraps

Deli sub combos

Chilled fruit juices

Freshly baked cookies

Variety of milk

Ice cream

Assorted bottled drinks

Source: Rockdale County Schools


©2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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