- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2004

Etta Conteh buys her lunch and eats it, too. A first-grade student at Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School in Alexandria, Etta, 6, recently enjoyed spaghetti with meatballs, bread, low-fat chocolate milk and an orange.

“Every day when I come home from school, I have a big smile,” she says. “I eat school lunch. It has yummy stuff. You have fun.”

The National School Lunch Program, which provides low-cost or free lunches to more than 28 million children every school day, works with more than 99,800 public and private schools and residential child care institutions, including Tucker Elementary. The food plan is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service in Alexandria.

School lunches must meet the applicable recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend that no more than 30 percent of a person’s calories come from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat, says Susan Acker, spokeswoman for the Food and Nutrition Service.

Regulations also establish a standard for school lunches to provide one-third of the recommended dietary allowances of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories, she says.

The USDA gives school districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the lunch program compensation for each meal served as well as “commodity credits” to spend on specific products.

For instance, schools are reimbursed 21 cents for each full-price lunch that is served. Also, schools must offer free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children. They are reimbursed $1.84 for reduced-price lunches and $2.24 for free lunches.

“There are a number of children for whom school lunch is the most important meal of the day,” Ms. Acker says. “We recognize that school meals must look and taste good if children are going to eat them. … Ultimately, however, this issue is most effectively addressed at the local level through the efforts of concerned parents. We actively encourage parents to become involved in their children’s school meals and to bring concerns and suggestions to the attention of local officials.”

Although the USDA sets the guidelines, it is the responsibility of the local district to decide on the specific foods and how they are prepared, Ms. Acker says. Several menu-planning approaches are provided by the USDA to coordinate meals. For more specific information on the options in Microsoft Word form, see www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/ menu/menu.planning.approaches.for.lunches.doc.

Mydina Thabet, dietitian and food and nutrition specialist at Prince George’s County Public Schools in Upper Marlboro, plans menus on a five-week cycle. Occasionally, new foods are scheduled into the rotation.

“During the week of Oct. 11 through 14, we have something special, chicken quesadillas, for National School Lunch Week,” she says. “I’ve only been in school nutrition for six years, but regulations have gotten better. People give school lunches a bad rap.”

During September, Alexandria City Public Schools has had 41 fruits and vegetables on the menu, says Becky Domokos-Bays, director of food and nutrition services. For instance, she featured jicama, a Mexican turnip, with carrot sticks and dip.

“We go to work in June and start planning for next year,” she says. “Our goal is to make fruits and vegetables attractive. Everyone eats with their eyes.”

At Alexandria elementary schools, students who buy lunch must have a meat component, bread component, two fruits and vegetables, and milk. An attendant checks the items chosen by the students before they take their seats.

If students don’t like the meal on the menu for the day, other choices are always available, such as peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and salads. Middle school and high school students have the same basic meal as elementary students, with a few more choices.

Because Yaa Afrifa-Minka, 5, a kindergarten student at Tucker Elementary School, didn’t want spaghetti and meatballs, she bought yogurt, graham crackers with cheese, low-fat chocolate milk and grapes. Yaa has other favorite selections, too.

“I like pizza because it’s good,” she says. “I like macaroni and cheese because I like cheese.”

Schools also conduct taste parties to evaluate whether students will like foods that are being considered for upcoming meals, says Penny McConnell, director of food and nutrition services at Fairfax County Public Schools in Springfield.

“We try to get as much feedback from our customers as we can,” she says. “They would all love to have candy and soft drinks, but we just can’t do that. We ask them what they would like, within reason. For example, shrimp we can’t afford.”

In addition to planning healthy lunches, Ms. McConnell says she coordinates nutrition promotions and education in the Fairfax County schools. For instance, in the elementary schools, she promotes slogans through fliers, such as “Give me five colors that jive.” The phrase is supposed to help students remember to eat five fruits and vegetables a day.

Another slogan Ms. McConnell uses is “calcium three,” which instructs students to have at least one serving of calcium at each meal.

“We try to be the nutrition laboratory for the school,” she says. “What we serve every day complements what students are taught in the classroom.”

It is hoped that teaching students to eat healthfully will help curb the childhood obesity problem in the United States, says Bailey McCreery, director of food services for Arlington County Public Schools.

“We’ve eliminated large servings of french fries,” he says. “We’ve also eliminated french fries by 40 percent this year in all the schools. We’re already hearing about it from the students.”

If students don’t want to buy a lunch at school, it’s important for parents to monitor what their children are eating, says Jodie Shield, co-author of “The American Dietetic Association Guide to Healthy Eating for Kids.”

“Kids are throwing away their lunch,” she says. “They’re not eating their lunch. They are trading away their lunch.”

If parents want their children to eat their packed lunches, they should consider their children’s wishes in what goes into the lunch box or brown paper bag, Ms. Shield says.

“I don’t understand why parents pack their kids’ lunch,” she says. “If you want to teach your kids to eat nutritionally, you should have them pack their own lunch. This is the time to teach them how to eat. When you first start having kids pack lunch, you have to supervise, but it’s too late by high school to teach them too much.”

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