“I want my Pop-Tarts!” lamented junior Hadiya Trowell at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High in North Miami as she finished a lunch of brown rice, beef strips and mixed vegetables.
The Mourning vending machines used to be filled with Pop-Tarts and such. Now they’re all fresh food — tuna-salad sandwiches and parfait yogurts.
When a Herald reporter and photographer visited Mourning High, kids were in a rush to get their food and eat it during the 30-minute lunch break. For fruits and vegetables, students could pick from whole apples, a box of celery and carrot sticks, hot mixed vegetables, packaged apple slices, strawberry yogurt and several kinds of juices.
Eating patterns varied widely. At one freshmen table, Aubyn Roche had cleaned her plastic plate, including vegetables, while across from her Ariana Aviles hadn’t touched her vegetables. “I don’t like them,” she said flatly.
Roshawn Janvier, a freshman, had chosen a package of apple slices, which remained unopened on his plate after he had finished the rest of the meal. When a reporter asked him if he was going to eat the slices, he said, “Yes!” His buddy Kenneth Gratereaux snorted. “No he’s not.” Later, as Janvier left the cafeteria, he said he’d eaten “a little” of the apple slices.
At the end of the first lunch shift, the Mourning waste bins contained some vegetables and rice among the plastic dishes, but not a lot.
Rebecca Landesman, a Mourning student journalist, emailed: “From what I see people who buy school lunch will eat the main part of the meal like the chicken or tacos or rice, but they won’t eat the fruit and vegetables, which doesn’t look as appealing.”
But as the school year has gone on, she wrote, “I don’t really hear people complaining about it too much anymore ….When lunch is over there are dozens of trays left on the tables that have some part of the meal that was left uneaten. Cookies are 50 cents each and they’re probably the most purchased food the cafeteria sells.”
Teaching nutrition in schools can be a tricky matter. Sturm, the RAND obesity expert, warned that schools can send mixed messages if, for example, they’re “using candy or cookies for reward and running for punishment.”
He notes that healthier foods alone won’t produce thinner kids. Giving kids better nutritional options is a good step, he said, but “don’t expect that this magically prevents obesity.”
South Florida schools appear to understand that. Miami-Dade has several innovative programs encouraging exercise, even for high school students who don’t take regular physical education classes. There’s also a program with Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation, promoting after-school exercise programs with healthy snacks — an alternative to flopping on the couch at home and snacking on junk foods while watching TV.
While everyone endorses exercise, the value of salad bars remains hotly debated.
Broward schools haven’t used salad bars for the past few years because “it’s tough to control contamination,” said Moppert, the nutrition manager. “And we had a lot of waste.” Broward now serves salads in clear plastic containers. In Miami-Dade, salad bars are permitted in schools, when there are enough staff members to control the area. said Parham.
This year, Publix and Produce for Kids, a nonprofit group, have donated 17 salad bars to Miami-Dade schools, including Sunset Park Elementary, where the kids point to the items they want behind a sneeze screen and a cafeteria worker spoons the desired items into a bowl.
At the beginning of the school year, “we had hardly any kids” using the salad bar, said Principal Sara Martin. Then she staged a “tasting day” in which each student was given six little paper cups to sample vegetables and fruits they had never tried before. “They tried it and loved it.” And they liked that they could control which items went into the salad. About 250 of the school’s 650 students now regularly use the salad bar, Martin said.
“If you start with kindergartners and first graders,” said Rarback, the UM nutritionist, “then they’re going to be more familiar with fruits and vegetables by the time they’re in 11th and 12th grades. I think this process is going to evolve over time.”