School menus score with less fat more fresh fruits, vegetables Cutting into the cafeteria line

September 07, 1994|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,Special to The Sun

Maryland school cafeterias are cooking up healthier meals for kids, using recipes based on a new kind of math: Subtract artery-clogging fat. Multiply fresh fruits and vegetables. Add herbs and spices. Stir up a lunch that's good, and good for you.

New federal regulations are in the works to assure better nutritional quality in school lunches. But they won't be finalized and implemented until at least 1998. Yet several school systems are already rising to the challenge with ingenuity and enthusiasm.

Cheri Datoli, food service supervisor for Frederick County, offers a chef's salad made with low-fat turkey products, as well as tacos made with chicken. Sloppy Joes and spaghetti still feature beef, but sport a leaner look. Cooks reduce fat by washing the browned beef before adding it to the sauce.

Energetic and in love with her job, Ms. Datoli invented the "Lunch Box Roundup" last year. She noticed that kids' shiny new lunch boxes lacked nutritional punch. Now kids can drop an empty box in the cafeteria in the morning, then pick it up at noon, filled with their choice of sandwich and milk, along with the fruit, vegetable and surprise of the day. This year four schools will participate.

Her pilot project for school year '94 is a sports training table, in one school, for athletes and others who need a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate, low-fat meal. Pre-competition meals offered at noon or 4 p.m. will feature pasta or potatoes.

Traveling players can order "sports packs," including fruit, juice, bagels, muffins, pretzels, fig bars and even bottled water, to eat on the bus.

For years, critics panned the school lunch program for feeding our kids the nation's leftovers. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) commodities, like butter, cheese and fatty meat, saturated kids' lunches as well as their arteries. Regulations, largely unchanged since 1946, controlled portions of food to be served, but not their fat content.

Anticipated regulations will shift to nutrient-based menus. Computers will analyze for calories, fat, saturated fat, protein, calcium, iron, vitamins A and C, all averaged over a week's time. Seventy pages of detailed rules will guide school systems in preparing healthier lunches.

jTC But schools face the same problem parents do. It's tough to get kids to eat what's good for them. "We could serve a healthy meal of baked fish, steamed vegetables and brown rice, but the kids wouldn't eat it," says registered dietitian Linda Van Rooy, Chief of Nutrition Services of the Maryland State Department of Education.

Kids raised on fast foods come to school looking for familiar favorites. "The trick is to serve an appealing meal that's good for you, too," she says. "We're already doing that, but many parents don't know it."

And it's true. The science and technology creating healthier supermarket foods are transforming school lunches as well. Cafeterias continue to serve the standards . . . hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and taco salads. But changes in raw products and cooking methods are moving menus in a healthier direction. Fat is falling, from the national average of 38 percent, to the currently recommended 30 percent.

Carroll and Montgomery counties have been modifying recipes and rebalancing menus for several years now. Both had registered dietitians on staff to lead the way. This year, seven school systems have hired dietitians, an all-time high.

Dietitians and food service managers are writing more detailed specifications and demanding nutrition labeling on products they buy. In addition, USDA has turned some of its own commodities into more usable foods like lower fat pizza and skinless chicken nuggets.

Food service personnel are learning to think of themselves as professionals, providing a customer service. In Prince George's County, seven schools will participate in a unique project. On a volunteer basis, professional chefs will teach food-service workers to use herbs and spices to enhance flavor and keep the nutrition, while meeting the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for lower fat, salt and sugar.

"Kids are no longer a captive audience, especially in middle school and high school. They make decisions about what they will and won't eat," says the county's food service director George Bibbins. So they have to serve food that attracts kids.

In fact, some rural counties lacking professional staff have been slow to make changes. According to Ms. Van Rooy, they fear that if they change the menu too much, the kids will stop buying the lunch.

But in Baltimore City last year, cafeteria workers started asking kids what they wanted to eat. Surprisingly, many said more fresh fruits and vegetables. Now the daily fruit bowl is a fixture in most cafeterias. The kids get bananas, oranges, apples, peaches and pears, as well as carrot sticks, lettuce and tomato, fresh broccoli and baked potatoes with a variety of toppings.

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