Children line up for hot lunch at Sears Elementary
School last week. A federal mandate will affect their food choices starting next
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Obesity and related health issues have reached epic proportions nationwide, and Dean Hamburg is doing something about it.
"We don't want to be the bean sprout and tofu answer, but at the same time, we enjoy offering appealing, healthy meals," said Hamburg, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's student nutrition services administrator.
Hamburg said a variety of changes already have been made in the district's kitchens, from substituting applesauce for shortening in cakes and cookies to retiring the deep fat fryers two years ago.
"We've finally recovered from that," Hamburg said of the backlash as students got used to having their french fries baked instead of fried.
Other changes have included withdrawing double cheeseburgers from the menu in fact, Hamburg said, cheeseburgers are available less and less frequently and the ground beef used in tacos and other meals is always drained before serving.
Hamburg said more in the way of salads is being offered at the district's high schools and this year, for the first time, whole-grain products are available, including pizza crusts and tortillas.
"We're also taking advantage of available products devoid of trans fat, and we try to encourage greater consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, keeping in mind that those items are high-cost in this state," Hamburg said.
Cost is always an issue, Hamburg said, and student nutrition services does its best to operate on a break-even budget. The district serves about 5,500 meals per day at 24 kitchen sites with a staff of 76.
The 980,000 meals per year are done with a budget of $2.5 million, and Hamburg said about 96 percent of the student nutrition services budget, which includes labor, food and transportation, is covered by cash sales and federal reimbursement for free and reduced-cost meals. The school district covers the remaining 4 percent.
Also new in the district is a breakfast program. Hamburg said eight schools now serve breakfast, thanks to a $36,000 startup grant.
"I have a passion for the breakfast program," Hamburg said. "Kids eating breakfast really appreciate that start."
Hamburg said a good breakfast and lunch can pay dividends in the classroom, where students who eat well generally perform better and have far fewer disciplinary issues.
The focus on healthier choices in school cafeterias comes as study after study cite obesity as one of the biggest health issues facing today's youth. According to figures provided by Hamburg, among 15-year-olds nationwide, 15 percent of girls and 14 percent of boys are considered obese and the widespread occurrence of diabetes is a result of poor nutrition.
"In response to that significant health issue for our students, Congress, through the USDA, has established a federal law requiring that all school districts that participate in the school lunch program establish a wellness policy by fall 2006," Hamburg said.
To that end, the district has formed a development committee and after meeting earlier this month, the committee intends to have a wellness policy in place by next spring.
"A wellness policy should encourage an increase in physical activity and healthy choices in meal and beverage consumption," Hamburg said.
While cost is a factor, Hamburg said changing eating habits also is a challenge. Hamburg said that when he surveys students about their favorite lunches, inevitably, pizza tops the list with tacos or taco salad at No. 2.
"In my experience, our wonderful kids, like us adults, their favorite foods are high-fat, high-sodium," Hamburg said.
Hamburg said that in addition to marketing lunches to students, good nutrition and its benefits could be examined in the classroom, whether it be calculating calories in math class or learning how the body uses nutrients in science class.
Hamburg said the committee also will be tackling vending machines in schools, as well as fund-raisers that involve food.
One option is to stock machines with juices, waters and healthy snacks instead of soda and candy.
"Our schools have grown to depend on vending machine sales for support of cocurricular activities," Hamburg said. "I am optimistic of not eliminating the machines so much as changing what is sold in the machines. I'm also optimistic we can encourage kids to make healthier choices at lunch."
Hamburg invited the public to offer suggestions to help make school meals more nutritious as well as appealing for students. Suggestions may be e-mailed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. ak.us.
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