Food for thought: Area school districts boost nutrition in menu plans

Gone from many school lunchrooms are the fried pork tenderloins and corn dogs. Today’s young people twirl forkfuls of whole grain noodles and pluck romaine lettuce and roma tomatoes from the salad bar.

Yes, student meal choices have changed, as a survey of area districts can attest.

These transformations, for the most part, have been gradual. Hickman Mills, Independence, Fort Osage, Lee’s Summit and others stopped using fryers years ago, for example. And now, nearly all students nibble some portion of whole grains among bread items and drink lower-fat milk.

However, nutrition departments are continuing to push for more fruits and vegetables, and a broader selection of them, as government health initiatives and upcoming new federal food guidelines encourage more nutritional offerings.

Salad bar for all

One trend this school year for Independence and Lee’s Summit is a salad bar for the youngest students to introduce them earlier to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fresh greens have been part of high school lunch options, but now the grade schoolers can wander over to the lettuce every day, said Independence‘s director of nutrition services, Michele Crumbaugh, who took the post six years ago.

Since then she and other district officials began making subtle changes, such as requiring elementary students to take fruits and vegetables rather letting them choose.

“We didn’t say we were doing it,” she said. “We didn’t make a big deal about it.”

The Raymore-Peculiar district’s Bridle Ridge Intermediate School received a grant from the Whole Kids Foundation, a nonprofit affiliated with Whole Foods Market, to fund its salad bar.

The district also keeps it local by purchasing some fresh produce from Windsor’s Four County Produce Auction north of Windsor, Mo.

Grandview’s Belvidere and Butcher-Greene Elementary students recently learned about fruit and vegetable varieties in a program called “A to Z Salad Bar.” The school’s food service provider sponsored the learning experience, which allowed students to choose from salad bar foods beginning with each letter of the alphabet.

Lee’s Summit has expanded its entrée salad program, which was piloted at several elementary schools last year.

The salads, such as Asian chicken salad, apple chicken salad and southwest chicken salad, are popular with high-school students, but have recently been offered to middle and elementary school students.

Stepping up

The push to eat healthfully, as people find in their own kitchens, often comes with a little work, and some extra money.

Leah Schmidt, director of nutrition services for Hickman Mills, is negotiating with suppliers to ensure the district can receive the best deal for the whole grain pasta and breads and brown rice now on the menu.

There’s some extra cost so the district increased meal prices by 10 cents, although more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, Schmidt said.

“Our kitchens are creative with side dishes (they make), and all of our staff like for the students to want to eat their food,” Schmidt said. “They want to make it look good.”

Hickman Mills also provides a fresh fruit or veggie snack in the classroom, without cost, two or three times a week as part of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

Independence district officials have also increased efforts over the years. Vending machines display items with zero trans fats and low saturated fats.

High schoolers can munch a hummus wrap. The district also uses the NuVal scoring system to rate nutritional value on snacks and a la carte cafeteria items. The values are displayed prominently so the students can make informed choices. New efforts focus on reduction of sodium, Crumbaugh said.

All the nutritional changes are complemented with work from Independence’s youth development director, Jennifer Walker. She helps to coordinate programs, such as Nutrition Detectives, to teach students how to read labels, and incorporating 30 minutes of additional “movement” time in classrooms.

“Schools are the essential setting to establish healthy eating,” said Walker, who recently received an award from the national nonprofit Alliance for a Healthier Generation for efforts in the school district. “We want it to become a norm.”

"Hickman Mills and Independence are some of the best examples of (healthy food changes) and are on the right track," said Erika Devore, community outreach director for KC Healthy Kids.

The nonprofit, in its goal to reduce obesity and encourage Kansas City’s children’s health, pulls together resources to establish programs that will have a positive impact.

Devore noted that officials in the Kansas City, Missouri, school district increased the number of chef salads offered to students because younger students were snatching up the greens the older students typically chose.

“There are definitely some changes in what schools are offering and what kids are choosing,” Devore said.

Political attention

Following requests from the salt, potato and frozen pizza industry, lawmakers in recent weeks have made changes in a spending bill that would eliminate standards proposed earlier this year that included limiting lunch potatoes and sodium. The changes would also allow for pizza tomato paste to count as a vegetable.

If the proposal is adopted, Schmidtt said, it should not affect districts that have already moved forward with healthy changes.

“The ‘pizza is a vegetable’ thing is so blown out of proportion,” Schmidt said. “I don’t know any school nutrition services that count their pizza that way. We always serve at least one fruit and vegetable daily with any entree that we serve. We also only serve fries (baked only) with our lunches a maximum of once a week at the high school and only once a month for ninth (grade).”

Karen Wooton, school food services coordinator for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, expects the potato requirement to be elimintated, but the results will have little impact on the progress that district nutrition departments have made.

“ I think our schools have already moved forward on this,” she said.

Even if schools are serving potatoes, they are doing so in healthier ways.

“They don’t fry like they used to,” she said.

For the long haul

One incentive in going forward has been that upcoming nutritional guideline created from the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, set for release later this year. Schmidt is anticipating additional requirements for dark green and deep orange vegetables, among the suggestions.

When new standards are released, Wooton said she anticipates schools to make efforts to comply because they are on track.

“They are already ahead of the game,” she said. “Any time you go to eat school lunches, you get fruits and vegetables. They’ve had to monitor fat and nutrition content for years and are extremely conscious.”

School officials hope that food changes in the schools can bring positive changes in the long run.

Hickman Mills, with its high percentage of students receiving free and reduced-priced lunches, is working with Score 1 for Health, which is sponsored by the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences and the Deron Cherry Foundation. Researchers there are tracking the outcomes of various initiatives through student health screenings and have collected data for years.

Future results could provide evidence on the impact that school meals have on health.

“What they are eating affects their activity level and ability to learn,” Schmidt said.