School Cafeterias Just Got Healthier

The challenge will be getting students to eat what they're made to take.

It's a tradition to give apples to teachers on the first day of school, but they weren't the only ones to have fruit pressed on them when King County school districts started their new terms last week. In accordance with school-lunch standards adopted by the Department of Agriculture, students across the country are now required to take a half-cup portion of fruit or vegetable with every meal. Students who fail to correctly assemble their trays will be sent back to the cafeteria line or offered a piece of fruit at the checkout station.

"The USDA is doing a great job of retraining us, starting with kids," King County Nutrition Consultant Donna Oberg says.

The standards announced earlier this year were designed to combat the childhood obesity rate, which has tripled over the past three decades, Oberg says. In addition to mandating fruit and vegetable service, the standards call for meals to include more whole grains, less salt, and a greater diversity of vegetables. Meals will also be sized by age group, so a first-grader doesn't get as much butternut-squash curry as a high-schooler.

Butternut-squash curry is one of a number of new recipes developed in conjunction with the Tom Douglas Group: Local students can also look forward to tabouli salad, baked pollock with tomato topping, and yogurt fruit parfait. Oberg says cafeteria directors are scrambling to develop dishes that satisfy the new rules, partly because suppliers haven't yet started to manufacture items that meet the whole grain requirement. "I've had nutritional directors struggling with pizza and sub sandwiches, making sure the buns have more than two ounces of whole grain," Oberg says. "But it's moving very quickly in the right direction."

Although students are required to take a fruit or vegetable, they are not required to eat it. There's nothing to stop students from tossing their servings in the trash, although Oberg says a few districts have instituted "sharing tables" for unwanted food in hopes of reducing waste. Students are also free to subvert the low-sodium requirement by slathering their meals with condiments. Although school cafeterias don't provide salt shakers, students have unfettered access to ketchups and mustards.

"There will be a lot of promotion, so students will understand why we're doing this," Oberg says, adding that parents can help support the overhaul by reviewing online menus with their children and encouraging them to try various fruits and vegetables.

Seattle Public Schools is easing its students into the new paradigm: Whole-grain chicken corn dogs, kidney beans, and bell peppers aren't scheduled to appear until September 18.

"It's going to take a little time, but I think it's great news for kids and families," Oberg says.

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