Slowly, kids developing an appetite for healthier school lunches

The overhaul of school nutrition hasn’t been easy to swallow, but South Florida kids seem to be warming to menus.

08/03/2014 3:26 PM

08/03/2014 3:26 PM

The healthy school food campaign championed by first lady Michelle Obama enters year No. 3 to continued mixed reviews.

Political critics still complain about the “Mommy State” menu, some kids still toss just out about anything of vegetable origin, and there is no hope that the banana will ever replace the brownie as a favorite snack with grade-schoolers.

But, say the managers of Broward and Miami-Dade’s school menus, there is evidence that students are slowly, very slowly coming around to accept the bigger splashing of green and the slashing of fatty, sugary foods.

Both school districts will keep essentially the same menu as last year with slight modifications based on student preference and federal regulations.

Miami-Dade, for instance, is unveiling a new food truck to make healthy food seem more hip. Broward is continually updating its mix of vegetables.

But the menu is mainly designed to deliver the right fuel for spirited playground races or for tackling the SAT. Both school systems will continue to offer salads at every meal, and desserts remain a no-no.

“This meal will definitely meet the kid’s nutritional needs,” said Sheah Rarback, the director of nutrition at the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.

The big question is whether the meal ends up eaten or dumped in the trash.

The White House implemented the improved nutritional standards in 2012, including requirements that schools provide more fruits and vegetables to students.

The menu is without a doubt better than options of yore — the old mystery meat on a bun, side of fries and soda. However, coaxing students to eat the healthier food has fallen to schools, with decidedly mixed success.

Every day since the regulations went into effect, about 1 million fewer students choose school meals, according to the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit attempting to increase the quality of school meals.

In 2012, Broward conducted a food waste study and found that students were throwing away more food than before the regulations were passed, said Darlene Moppert, chairperson of the nutrition committee for Broward County schools. She still believes, however, that exposure to more fruits and vegetables is a good move that is slowly changing the way students eat.

While Miami-Dade has not conducted a formal study, Penny Parham, administrative director of food and nutrition for Miami-Dade schools, said she has observed foods like apples and bananas replacing soda and snack food. The secret, she said, is presenting a smorgasbord of delicious fruits to whet appetites.

With or without the healthier rules, “there are a number of kids who complain about school lunch,” Rarback said. “That’s been going on as long as there’s been school lunch.”

New this year are federal regulations cracking down on vending machines snacks. Items sold in vending machines cannot be more than 200 calories and there are also limits on sodium and fat content. The new guidelines could cause changes in high schools, such as the replacement of sugary drinks, Parham said.

Broward and Miami-Dade school food managers said neither district is unduly burdened by the national push to improve nutrition, despite some backlash from political critics who claim that the guidelines are too cumbersome.

“Broward County started making changes years ago,” Moppert said, introducing salad bars into schools in the 1990s and eliminating desserts from the school menu in 2006.

Despite those changes, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistics released in February indicate that eight percent of Broward high school students had eaten no vegetables in the past week. The percentage of students who ate vegetables three or more times in the past week was at a dismal 12.8 percent.

The survey also indicated that nine percent of students in Miami-Dade County are obese.

School nutritionists in Broward and Miami-Dade will continue to tweak menus to try to combat these problems. Both schools keep tabs on not only the health regulations, but also on which items are the most popular.

In the end, Parham said, kids must be the ones to choose fruits over fats. And Miami’s students may be closer to making good decisions than adults might assume, she said.

The most popular item on the schools menu in Miami-Dade is not pizza, chicken fingers or mozzarella sticks. It’s Asian chicken.

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