- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003

Prunes in hamburgers?

Yup.

Cherries, blueberries and veggies, too.

A growing number of schools nationwide are putting more fruits and vegetables into fat-laden meats like burgers and breakfast sausage to combat soaring childhood obesity rates.

Students returning to class in the District of Columbia Sept. 2 will be able to choose between veggie burgers and regular hamburgers, said Louis Erste, chief operating officer for the D.C. public schools.

The menu change, which will start after a taste-testing party in early September, is part of a three-year effort to reduce fat and sodium in the cafeteria food, Mr. Erste said, adding he hopes to expand the menu to include fruit-based meat products, like the prune and cherry burgers served at schools in California and the Midwest.

“It sounds like it would be better than some of these veggie burgers,” he said.

Several researchers have found that fruit reduces the total saturated fat because it replaces some of the fatty meat. Initially, fruit concentrates were added to keep meat from drying out and tasting stale.

“Putting fruit purees in meat may help children get the additional nutrients they need to be healthy,” said Jennifer Leheska, who recently published preliminary results on a study mixing blueberries and prunes into breakfast sausages served at schools.

The results showed the fruit sausages had less fat and more antioxidants than regular breakfast sausages served in schools, said Ms. Leheska, a graduate research assistant at Texas Tech University.

While no public schools in the Washington area offer fruit burgers, several are looking for ways to follow the lead of Bloomington, Ill., public schools.

Students there will eat burgers cooked with Michigan cherries, said Connie Mueller, director for food and nutrition services for Bloomington city schools.

The cherry burgers, in their fourth year, are a popular menu item for some 58,000 students in the school system, Ms. Mueller said.

“Most students aren’t even aware they have fruit in them, and we have yet to receive a complaint,” she said.

Penny McConnell, food and nutrition services director for Fairfax County public schools, said she has been hoping for years that the government’s school lunch commodity program would include fruit-based products like the blueberry burger.

The U.S. Agriculture Department’s program gives food to more than 94,000 public and private, nonprofit schools that provide student meals.

Items on the list, such as fruits, fluctuate in availability depending on how the market is performing, said Suanne Buggy, spokeswoman for the agency’s food and nutrition service.

“Several years ago, we had an abundance of prune puree, but the availability of that item has changed,” Ms. Buggy said.

Fairfax public schools have been adding small amounts of fruit concentrate to muffin mixes to lower the fat content.

“It’s a positive move forward, considering how the overweight problem in our schools is skyrocketing,” Ms. McConnell said.

U.S. childhood obesity rates have doubled in the past 20 years, with more than 15 percent of those ages between 6 and 19 considered obese, according to the American Academy of Pediatricians.

Montgomery County public schools served hamburgers and brownies with prune concentrates from 1999 to 2000, but stopped when the commodity program stopped offering the prune option.

“It was a shame because we heard a lot of student comments on how much better the hamburgers were with the puree,” said Kathy Lazor, director for Montgomery schools’ food and nutrition services division.

Montgomery schools add apple sauce in baked goods to lower saturated fat, and Ms. Lazor is searching for ways to add prune burgers in the future.

But other school systems are staying away from the fruit burgers.

Loudoun County schools opted not to buy the prune hamburger because it cost a few cents more per pound than the regular beef, said Sherry Miller, the school system’s food services supervisor.

Prince George’s County tried a prune burger in its taste-testing party last year for middle and high school students but the product was rejected because of its fragile appearance, said Karen Hagahghi, director for food and nutrition services.

Despite the appearance, more manufacturers are offering fruit-based foods, said Erik Peterson, spokesman for the American School Food Service Association, an Alexandria trade group.

For example, Otis Spunkmeyer Inc., a Leandro, Calif., manufacturer of frozen cookie dough and baked goods, recently introduced for schools a chocolate-chip cookie dough with fruit powder that has half the fat of regular cookie dough.

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