The days of a greasy burger served with fries and a Cherry Coke for school lunch, followed by a mid-afternoon candy bar from the vending machine, are gone.
On a typical Tuesday at Mill Creek Middle School, in Comstock Park Public Schools, students headed through the lunch line grabbed chicken patties made with whole-grain breading inside whole-grain buns. They snatched apples, bananas, grapes, strawberries, watermelon, cucumber slices, broccoli florets and side salads from a tray piled high with produce.
Sugary soda is no longer sold within the school walls, and students choose 100 percent apple or orange juice and low-fat or fat-free milk.
Flashback 10 years ago, said Comstock Park Food Service Director Randy Kincaid, and fresh produce wasn’t served at all; fruits and vegetables came from a can; soda was a top seller, and most students bypassed the milk.
“Undoubtedly, we are selling a lot more fruits and vegetables,” said Kincaid, who also serves as head of the food service department for Kenowa Hills Public Schools. “The kids are taking a lot more. In the old days we had very few fresh options.”
Part of the problem used to be that fruits and vegetables were declined by students in lieu of fries, but now they are required with the entree. Now students in the lunch line eagerly grab their choices.
“You put out so many options, you’re bound to find something they like. The kids are surprising me,” he said, adding that fresh tomatoes and broccoli are popular.
Vending machines, once filled with candy and chips, now stand empty in the lunchroom.
“Things have changed a lot,” Kincaid said.
“We used to sell 50 milk cartons a week, now we sell 75 to 100 per day,” said Michele Kingsley, a Comstock Park food service worker for 13 years.
Pizza, even cookies, are made with whole grain and nothing is fried.
A Multi-Pronged Approach
The push to improve school lunches has happened over the past few years, with snack requirements taking effect this year. The United States Department of Agriculture set standards, required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which have led to healthier school lunches nationwide. The act was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her Let’s Move! initiative to address the problem of childhood obesity.
Requirements include that any food sold in school must:
- be a “whole grain-rich” product or
- have as the first ingredient a fruit, vegetable, a dairy product or a protein food or
- be a combination food that contains at least one-quarter cup of fruit and/or vegetable or
- contain 10 percent of the daily value of calcium, potassium, vitamin D or dietary fiber.
Most items sold for school meals have been reformulated by food manufacturers to improve nutritional value to meet requirements, Kincaid said.
Effective this year, the Smart Snacks in School Program, part of the UDSDA guidelines, requires snack items must be a maximum of 200 calories. There are also limits on fat, sodium and sugar.
Eating at home seems to be improving as well, Kincaid said, with more parents promoting healthy eating and nutritious options.
“Ten years ago the kids wouldn’t have touched the fresh vegetables,” he said.
Students said they like the options, citing grapes, jello with fruit, bananas and oranges as their go-to side items.
“It’s more nutritious than it was a few years ago,” said Kayla Wilson, a seventh grader.
Alivia DeKlien spoke bluntly on the matter:
“We used to have crappy food, but now it’s better.”
Like Kincaid, Mo Shamali, child nutrition director for Kentwood Public Schools, has remained ahead of the curve when it comes to packing school meals with nutrition.
Along with fresh fruits and vegetables, and salad bars, he serves up vegetable minestrone, vegetarian chili, tomato soup with whole wheat roll and fruit. Salads are mixed with romaine lettuce and fresh spinach.
“I felt it is important for our kids to be raised on fresh vegetables and fruits, to start liking them early,” he said.
Shamali said he’s always tried to stay ahead of regulations.
“As human beings, we care for each other, and how could we not care about our future? We feed the future literally and it is an obligation for us to provide information and healthy, good meals every day. It is definitely a passion and a responsibility.”
SNN Humor Column: Attack of the Whole Grain Pop-Tart