By Jennifer Wohlleb
Despite some controversies currently embroiling recent changes at the national level to school food programs, the meals of today are vastly more nutritious than those from just a few short years ago. It hasn’t been easy – both in finding healthier products and getting students to eat them – but school food service directors say their programs have come a long way.
Seven of Whitley County’s nine schools are now recognized by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation for their nutrition programs, which began making changes eight or nine years ago as part of the HealthierUS Challenge, a voluntary program to promote greater health and nutrition.
“We just made gradual changes, nothing drastic,” said Sharon Foley, Whitley County’s food service and nutrition director. Whitley County started with switching out white breads and pastas for whole grains and began adding in healthier items or finding healthier recipes for student favorites.
“Most of the kids were fine with it … I had a bigger problem with the adults – some who worked for me – and when they turn their noses up at it, the kids didn’t want to try it, either,” she said. “I told (the adults), you don’t have to like it, just don’t tell the kids you don’t like it.”
Foley said students were initially OK with more recent changes to sodium and calorie levels.
“Our children honestly thought (the meals) were fine until they started making a big deal about it on the news. We were already doing fine with saturated fat, calories, breads, pastas … the bread switch eight or nine years ago was the hardest,” she said. “After the first of last year, things quieted back down.”
Paducah Independent’s food service and nutrition director, Penny Holt, has seen a similar transformation. Her district also was part of the HealthierUS School Challenge and had made a number of changes when new standards were mandates several years ago.
“The greatest challenge we had was with the older students, eliminating the fried foods and introducing more baked items. That was probably the one that had the most resistance,” she said. “But now they have bragged about our fresh salads. We have fresh salads, as side salads, two or three times a week. We have fresh cucumber slices with dip – a low-fat, low-cal ranch – and they love it. Cherry tomatoes, they love them.”
Holt said the district tries to take a balanced approach, giving students some of the things they request, even if they aren’t always on the healthiest end of the spectrum.
“We have hot wings on Wednesday, and they asked for it, but during the week we’ll offer a lower calorie meal, because it (the calorie requirement) is averaged over the week,” she said. “And that’s where it’s important to have a ton of fresh fruits and vegetables, because they’re healthy but they are also going to lower the calorie count. So the children who eat with us are going to be eating a nutritionally balanced, calorically balanced meal.”
Finding healthy products also is getting easier, she said.
“Twenty-seven districts on this end of the state have formed a buying co-op and we have set our own specifications for those foods that meet our needs, so those foods coming in our doors are going to be the things that we need, that the kids need to be eating,” Holt said. “We’re being heard in telling the market what we need, and when you have that kind of buying power, it makes things a little easier.”
Foley said people seem better educated about healthier foods today than they were when schools first started these changes.
“I think they pay more attention to that, now; I think there’s more out there about exercising,” she said. “I think it just makes parents more aware, about the food and the exercise working together. And I’ve noticed at the different schools I go to, the teacher is teaching (about eating healthy) and when the kids come down they say, ‘We studied this and carrots are better than that,’ and they’ll tell me what’s healthiest for the day. Sometimes they’re looking for the salad, ‘because it’s healthier for you,’ and I’m hearing more of that.”
Foley said there is no district data to determine if the healthier food is resulting in healthier students, but she has seen positive changes.
“The children who were in first grade when we started this and are now going into high school; we can see them eating more broccoli and more spinach, we see that more than when we started this,” she said.