It’s just past 10 a.m., as Caylen Rudd is making her way through the lunch line at Coconut Palm Elementary School in Miramar.
The second-grader aspires to be a model one day, and believes that good nutrition will help her achieve her goals. Her lunch plate: baked chicken, fresh carrots, fruit juice and an apple.
“I love apples,” says the 7-year-old, taking a healthy bite. “It’s important to eat healthy because when you eat healthy, you get a stronger body, and get to do anything you want when you grow up.”
Caylen’s lunch is thanks to Broward Public Schools’ efforts to revamp its breakfast and lunch menus. Gone are the deep fryers. In their place: Cut-up carrot sticks, apples, roasted meats and gardens growing herbs, fruits and veggies.
Similar efforts are under way in Miami-Dade County Public Schools with the Lean and Green initiative, which launched this school year, in conjunction with the Humane Society. Lean and Green includes labeling vegan and vegetarian options, offering more fresh food choices, as well as providing nutritional information to parents online.
“We’ve always been promoting the fresh fruits and vegetables but this is a label, something noticeable that we could build on,” said Penny Parham, administrative director for the Department of Food and Nutrition for Miami-Dade Public Schools. “Children know hypocrisy. You don’t want to teach them healthy habits in health class and not have healthy choices in the cafeteria.”
In addition, Miami-Dade is also serving lunch on new eco-friendly plates in 27 schools as part of a pilot program.
Both Miami-Dade and Broward counties offer free breakfast to all students, and took student feedback into consideration when making their menus for the school year — adding smoothies, taco lasagna, scones and vegetarian wraps.
“We take into consideration what the kids like, and we try to provide what they want within the guidelines,” says Darlene Moppert, Broward Schools' program manager for nutrition education and training. “We’re trying to give them as much variety as possible.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture set the new guidelines in 2012, calling for schools to offer fruits and vegetables daily, incorporate more whole grains into meals, and reduce the levels of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.
“It’s exciting to tell you the truth,” said Serafina Laughlin, a food and nutrition manager at Charles David Wyche Jr. Elementary School in Miami Gardens. “Once we went from the old tradition to the new tradition of more vegetables and fruit, the kids began to recognize it more,” and sought out those foods more often.
Under the new guidelines, all students are required to have a fruit or vegetable on their plate in order to purchase a meal.
Laughlin, who starts cooking breakfast around 6:45 a.m., has noticed that children will vary their fruit choices with age.
“You’ll see more of the [kindergartners] take the cup because they’re used to the cupped fruit, because that’s what mommy gets them, but when you get higher grades, like the fourth or fifth grade, they get more of the fresh fruit,” she says.
With childhood obesity rates at about 17 percent among the 2- to 19-year-old age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, promoting good health and healthy eating habits has become a priority for schools.
“We’re very, very happy to be able to provide healthy options for students, which helps fight childhood obesity,” said Barbara L. Johnson, principal at Charles David Wyche Jr. “It keeps them focused. We talk to them about brain food and what powers your mind and what powers your brain. We tie it all together so they understand the benefits.”
Terri Thelmas, principal at Coconut Palm Elementary School in Miramar, says she encourages her students to get out and play.
“I don’t believe in a lot of homework,” she says. “Kids need to play. I am all about recesses.”
Thelmas says that the school cafeteria is now being seen as an extension of the classroom.
“You want to be strong and healthy, instead of tired,” said Brielle Goodleigh, 8, a third-grader. “You won’t be strong if you don’t eat any vegetables.”
And the lessons don’t end in the cafeteria as fruit, vegetable and herb gardens are popping up in schools across Broward and Miami-Dade.
Selena Rivas was recently marveling at the organic herbs, fruits and vegetables she’s growing with her classmates at Charles David Wyche Jr. Elementary: Bell peppers, tomatoes, Cuban oregano, dill.
“I love that everything in the garden is very edible and that we have very healthy choices in the garden,” said Selena, 10. “Everything goes to the cafeteria to help us grow and nourish our brains.”