Four years ago, President Barack Obama escalated the war on bacon double cheeseburgers and French fries by signing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
It was a bold attempt by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that basically said you can eat like a pig at home, but at the nation’s public schools you’re going to be introduced to those green things called vegetables. Students would be served food heavy on whole grains, fruits and vegetables and light on sodium and other bad stuff.
To back it up, officials said districts that refused to follow the chow standards would lose federal lunch subsidies. For a district like Hillsborough County, where about 60 percent of students are on free or reduced-price meal plans, that cost would be staggering.
Remember, the rule changes were announced four years ago. Schools had that long to phase in the changes, which take full effect this year. Hillsborough has been doing just that, and officials say they’re delighted with the results.
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Not every district is so positive, though.
The Fort Thomas, Ky.Kentucky, school district recently announced it will do without federal money because kids there aren’t eating the lunches and the food is thrown away. Similar reports have popped up in Wisconsin, Colorado, New York and other states.
So why is it working here?
“We always try to make the connection between lunches and learning,” school nutrition and marketing specialist Ginain Grayes said. “We embraced these new standards right away. We began making changes before the full standards came down. And we get the students involved.”
Feeding the more than 200,000 students attending Hillsborough public schools is a massive job. The program, which is self-sufficient, has a $131 million budget and about 1,500 employees who prepare 240,000 meals every day.
“It’s so much more of a process than people realize,” school board Chairwoman Carol Kurdell said. “Students have a limited time to eat. We have to make it fast, quick, nutritious, and fill ’em up.”
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Menus are audited by federal inspectors to ensure compliance with caloric and nutrition standards, but there is some leeway in how lunch is prepared.
That’s where about 200 students come in.
“We kid-test the new recipes,” Kurdell said. “People see that and they talk about it. It works better for us because the kids are involved. Plus, we have a culinary arts program that has input. There is so much discussion about going from the farm to the table, so healthy choices raise awareness.”
Even the menu testing is more than kids nodding their heads up and down, or making frowny faces. Students use iPads to provide real-time feedback on what they like and don’t.
For instance, fish tacos earned a rating of many thumbs down.
“That was a little challenging for the kids,” Grayes said.
Ah, but black beans and quinoa quesadilla?
“Delicious,” Grayes said. “The kids love it, and it has grains, vegetables and proteins.”
Snack machines are a target, too.
For instance, no more candy bars, potato chips or sugary soda. Gatorade’s low-sugar version is available.
Even though some districts aren’t complying with the healthier standards, it’s certainly worth the effort to see if there’s a way to turn around the obesity problem.
It will take more than a healthy school lunch, of course.
Unplugging video games and stressing exercise is a good way to start. School is about learning though, and teaching proper nutrition is something students can take throughout the rest of their lives.
Minus the fish tacos, of course.