Schools try for healthier foods in lunches

Posted: Wednesday, November 03, 2004

WASHINGTON New Yorkers eat triple-decker sandwiches with corned beef and Swiss cheese but not in school cafeterias, where the fare runs more to whole-wheat pizza with lowfat cheese.

The school district's food service division, bucking the city's tradition of high-fat, high-calorie edibles, has joined the national trend of offering more healthful choices in the lunch line.

In some districts, it's the policy; in others, it's a state requirement. The New York pizza is one slice of that effort 27 percent total fat versus last year's 32 percent, and 17 milligrams of cholesterol, compared with last year's 370 milligrams.

The new pizza tastes fine, said the district's executive director for school food. ''The kids don't even know it's healthier,'' David Berkowitz said.

Texas no longer serves deep-fat fried food and is reducing the amount of other fats, as well as sugars. San Francisco banned sodas and snacks from cafeterias, and is studying ways to cut fat and sugar in what is offered.

Federal researchers say the percentage of school-age kids who are overweight has been rising since the late 1970s, and now is about 15 percent. Such kids are more likely to grow into fat adults who face weight-related health problems such as heart disease and diabetes.

''The whole obesity issue the publicity that has been received by this has really awakened parents to the needs of kids about what they are eating,'' said Barbara Belmont, executive director of the School Nutrition Association, a professional group for school food officials.

''Without that support before, it was very difficult for us to make any headway,'' Belmont said.

Of about 180 district-level food service officials at the nutrition association's annual meeting in Indianapolis in July, more than half reported making significant improvements in nutrition, she said. Among the changes were more fruits and vegetables.

Schools have two options in serving food. The federal school lunch program, which subsidizes district food costs, requires that the meals adhere to federal nutrition guidelines for fat contents and other measures.

Districts also can offer unsubsidized lunches, called a la carte, which are not part of the federal program. As a result, these meals allow for less nutritious foods, and in many schools these are the lines where ids get their cookies and candies.

A report by the Institute of Medicine, an independent scientific advisory organization, said school officials ought to ensure that all meals meet federal nutrition guidelines.

To encourage kids to eat right, it helps to know the market, food service administrators say.

Schools in Polk County, Fla., have specials intended for high school students who are more concerned about getting served quickly so they can spend time with their friends, said Marcia Smith, the district's food policy director. The district offers ''grab-and-go'' salads, and combination plates of fruit, vegetables and a sandwich.

In New York City, the district has hired an executive chef and regional chefs to come up with versions of dishes that fit ethnic tastes. One such addition is a reduced-fat, reduced-salt Jamaican beef patty that is popular in parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn, Berkowitz said.

Kids still like pizzas, burgers and french fries, and may accept lower-fat versions. But as for whether they will give up their favorites, ''I don't think we are at the place yet,'' Berkowitz said.

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