School meals win praise from USDA Howard honored for creative menus

November 01, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Howard County is known for its impressive school system, and now for its healthy school lunches.

The meals rank among the best in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which two weeks ago gave the school system a regional award for creative menu planning.

USDA officials praised Howard County for keeping its school lunches within government dietary guidelines and for doing so while giving students a variety of entrees. They also liked the fact that county schools offered fruit at each lunchtime.

The award comes as the USDA is criticizing school districts across the nation for serving too many high-fat, high-sodium meals.

The government recommends that no more than 30 percent of daily calories should come from fat. But a 1992 survey of 545 schools found that school lunches contained 38 percent fat, on average.

The critical survey, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. of Princeton, N.J., also found that the lunches had almost 1,500 milligrams of sodium, nearly two-thirds the daily limit from just one meal.

A typical student gets about 4,600 milligrams of sodium a day, well above the 2,400-milligram suggested limit.

Too much fat and sodium may lead to heart disease and other ailments.

Howard County's school lunches meet the 30 percent maximum fat limit and other federal dietary guidelines because the school system follows a USDA recipe book that has low-fat, healthy meals. The book has recipes for such entrees as barbecued chicken, lasagna, roast turkey and chili.

"There's a very strong link to nutrition and education," Ms. Klatko says.

"If a child is well-nourished and doesn't have to bother with a growling stomach or hunger, I think they can focus better on their education."

Howard County serves an average of 13,000 meals a day. Elementary school students are offered two to three entrees and two to three vegetables a day. Middle-schoolers get four choices of entrees and four choices of vegetables each day. High school students pick from more than a half-dozen entrees from the "Regular," "Super" and "Coach's Corner" menus.

The $2 "Super" lunch gives students bigger portions, as does the $2 "Coach's Corner", a high-carbohydrate, low-fat, moderate-protein lunch for athletes.

A sample "Coach's Corner" lunch includes a quarter-pound hamburger, rotini with marinara sauce, a half-cup of lettuce and tomato, hot vegetables, a fruit and chocolate milk -- a total of 1,043 calories, 52 grams of protein, 161 grams of carbohydrate and 23 grams of fat.

At 16 elementary, six middle and all eight high schools, breakfast is available. And at different schools around the county, there are days when a potato bar, a deli bar, a salad bar and a Mexican

fiesta bar are offered.

When Ms. Klatko came to Howard County seven years ago to head the school food services program, selections such as meatloaf and beef stew weren't popular.

"They were the '50s and '60s way of looking at food . . . kids just weren't eating them," she said. "Kids were relating to the fast-food craze that was spreading around."

Hamburgers, fries and pizza were the rage at that time, and still are popular.

But now that many families have two working parents and limited time to prepare meals, Ms. Klatko has seen a growing popularity in what she calls "home-cooked" foods -- chicken pot pies, for example.

And she's seeing a lot of interest in Mexican food, such as burritos, chimichangas, tacos and salsa, perhaps a reflection of the nation's changing demographics and openness to ethnic foods.

"We have to have tacos once every week or the kids get upset," she says.

If students were to have a say in what they eat, they'd have tacos more often, say Oakland Mills eighth-graders Sharon Hogue and Kelley Diamond.

"They really taste like tacos," Kelley said.

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