- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

MCALESTER, Okla. (AP) - School lunches are nutritious and delicious. If you’ve ever attended school anywhere in the country your stomach might lurch at such a statement, but McAlester Public Schools is striving to ensure that it is true.

“Producing good nutrition is our mission,” District Health Director Donna Green said. “It’s not just putting a plate out, but we want something that is nutritious and the kids will eat it.”

Changing eating habits and the perception of school lunch is a difficult task. School districts face strict nutritional guidelines handed down from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and under those guidelines must produce something appealing for students, all with a low price ceiling. Juggling price, nutrition and taste can be challenging. For Green the priority is nutrition.

“I look at everything as, ‘What are we giving the children as far as nutrition?’” Green told the McAlester News-Capital (https://bit.ly/1sitS6H ). Several students said they wished there was more emphasis on taste.

“Some people think they 3D-print the food here, it is so bland and tasteless,” said McAlester freshman Nick Graham.

Graham and his friends were quick to criticize taste, but nutrition wasn’t at the forefront of their minds. On a recent day, Graham’s lunch consisted of a box of Slim Jims and Lay’s potato chips.

Seniors Joseph Savala and Nicholas Santini are more concerned with portion size.

“My mom is a kindergarten teacher, and we eat the same portion size as them,” Savala said.

“Yeah I’m an 18-year-old man and I eat the same as a 5-year-old,” Santini added.

Savala and Santini aren’t accurate in their assessments according to Green. She said portions are larger for older students; two ounces of meat or meat alternative are required for all high school lunches compared to only one ounce required for younger grades. Two ounces of meat may not seem like much, but that’s the point, according to Green.

“We eat too much meat anyway, and that’s part of the American problem,” Green said. “We think that our plate should be this big chunk of meat, some potatoes, and then we would consider corn our vegetable, which is not healthy.”

Another concern from some students is the lack of beverage options included in school lunches. Currently, the only included beverage is a carton of milk or a cup of water from a cooler. At the high school there is juice and tea available for purchase for an additional fee, but if a student is on free or reduced lunch, that is not included. If a student has a lactose allergy and is unable to purchase anything extra, the only option becomes the water. This might not be a big issue in some cities, but a majority of students in McAlester are eligible for free and reduced lunches.

“Seventy-five percent of our kids eat free and reduced lunch,” MPS Superintendent Marsha Gore said.

And what about the students not eating school lunch? What can a school do for the health of the students who bring in their own food? The answer is not much.

“Ultimately it’s the parents’ responsibility to rear their children with good health habits and if these parents are playing to their children’s desire to eat unhealthy, I mean that’s their responsibility,” Green said. “We as a school system are in the business of education, so we’re educating through what we are providing … we should be the example by providing healthier foods, but we can’t make them adhere to that, whatsoever.”

Some students take full advantage. In addition to packing unhealthy lunches, parents are allowed to bring fast food lunches to students at school.

“I’ve watched parents bring in lunches and they’ll bring in something from McDonald’s,” Gore said.

Green wants to see these unhealthy choices change in the future. She believes that with proper education students will seek out healthy options, regardless of whether they are eating school lunches, packed lunches or at a restaurant.

“Hopefully by starting in the kindergartens and at an early age educating children on better nutrition choices, as they grow older, even if they’re packing their lunches they’ll be requesting these things.”

Green is trying to make changes to the menu to better support this hope.

“I want to see what the kids will eat and not eat. A small thing I discovered today is that we buy whole tomatoes and we slice them up and the kids don’t eat them, so I said why don’t we get grape tomatoes?” Green said. “Little kids are more likely to eat those.”

Green has one hand tied behind her back by federal restrictions, while the other is tied with budget issues. The district is federally reimbursed for all free and reduced meals, and a full price meal only generates enough revenue to cover the cost of production. William Gay, Jefferson, Emerson and Edmond Doyle schools have fresh fruit and vegetable grants, which provide funds for fruits and vegetables, but it is a need-based grant and not every school in the district has it.

McAlester students may complain about their meals, but the district provides sufficiently according to regulations, Gore said.

Whether or not perceptions of school lunches change in the opinion of some students will likely depend on what Donna Green can accomplish with the resources she has.

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Information from: McAlester News-Capital, https://www.mcalesternews.com

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