Kids love fast food. Burgers, fries, chicken—as long as it is greasy or fried, it’s a winner in their eyes. But with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, schools had to cut back on calories and fat while increasing the amount of vegetables, fruits and whole grains in their breakfasts and lunches. It’s been a tough road, but New River Valley school systems have faced the challenge head-on with enthusiasm and determination.

“Schools must answer for everything that is placed on a child’s tray,” explains Lenora Williams, school nutrition director for City of Radford schools. Guidelines have been set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) which dictate the minimum and maximum number of calories allowed for breakfast and lunch. There are regulations regarding the quantity of fruit, subgroups of vegetables and target sodium levels which must be implemented over a seven year period. Most of the lunch guidelines had to be met this past school year, and local schools have succeeded in every way.

The road to healthier school meals has been anything but easy. In Pulaski County, the director of school nutrition, Ethelene Sadler, states that schools must keep their food kid-friendly while complying with the new meal pattern. It can be difficult to make kids eat vegetables from some of the required subgroups: dark green, red/orange, legumes, starchy and other. Sadler claims that the presentation of the food really determines its acceptability among their picky consumers. “We eat with our eyes first,” echoes Williams.

In terms of grains, 50 percent of bread components had to be made of whole grains this past year. This number jumps up to 100 percent for the 2013-2014 school year. The problem, Williams shares, is “if you’re not used to ‘brown’ bread at home or McDonald’s, then you don’t want ‘brown’ bread anywhere else.” Therefore, schools have had to get creative. Radford has been experimenting with using oatmeal or cornmeal rather than wheat flour, so the bread can contain healthy ingredients and appear lightly colored for children’s appeasement.

Vegetables are still hard-sellers in the children’s food arena. According to Scott Meade, assistant superintendent of Giles County schools, students did not “accept the mixed vegetable varieties very well.” Sadler echoes this statement, explaining that kids take fruit well but not vegetables. Changing the form of vegetables helps a little with this problem. For example, carrots can be served as sticks, coins or in portion-sized bags of “carroteenies.” Steaming vegetables is another solution. This cooking method changes the appearance just enough to make (even) broccoli “eat-able”.

Kids deserve more credit for what they are willing to try. Montgomery County proved that vegetables are not an entirely lost cause. Michael Marcenelle, school nutrition programs supervisor, says jícama, a vegetable known as the “Mexican turnip,” was introduced and accepted by kids. It’s shocking that the children liked a food described as a “turnip” or “root vegetable”.

Concerned about my favorite lunch items, I questioned the experts on the fates of pizza and chicken nuggets. I was assured that both foods are still included in lunch menus, but they have been drastically changed into healthier meals. Pizza is now made completely with whole grain crust and reduced-fat cheese, while the pepperoni has been substituted by low calorie turkey pepperoni. As Williams claims, “it’s still a junk food in the children’s minds, but it’s really not a junk food anymore.” Chicken nuggets, too, have faced a revision. The breading is now whole grain, so kids can have what they love, and schools can meet healthier guidelines.

In the New River Valley, local food products have made an appearance on lunch trays. SustainFloyd sponsors the Potato Project for Floyd students, in which kids plant and harvest potatoes that are served in their cafeterias. In Radford, fifth graders plant and harvest a garden at Belle Heth Elementary School. This is a fun way to promote the concept of “farm-to-table.” One year the garden was so successful that it provided a salad bar for every child at Belle Heth, in addition to the meals they packed from home or bought in the cafeteria.

If we want children to make healthier choices, it falls on us to set examples and teach them about the importance of good nutrition. Williams enforces the idea that we must “teach kids by example” and make “wiser choices about what we choose to put into our mouths.” As she explains, the United States didn’t become an unhealthy nation overnight, so it won’t become a healthy nation overnight either. It’s a gradual process, but it’s well worth the effort.

Be sure to thank the cafeteria workers and nutrition educators in your schools because this transition has not been easy. It has taken a lot of time and energy, but they’re helping to create a healthier generation. So let us remember Sadler’s words: “We’re no longer food service, we’re school nutrition!”

By Meg Selby


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