Thursday, August 18, 2011

Farm Fresh School Lunches?

I remember mystery meat, square pizza, french fries, and baked bologna topped with mashed potatoes and cheese in the school lunch line. I was invited into a school lunch room this week to see the total transformation of school lunches that's beginning to slowly inch it's way across the country.

I was surprised by the healthy makeover, and maybe a little shocked to see high school students actually eating it without complaining. First of all, I didn't detect that old familiar lunchroom smell (you know what I'm talking about) when I entered the cafeteria. The fresh apples, pears and strawberries were first to catch my eye.

There was not a french fry in sight. I did spot some pizza from a local restaurant, but the majority of the serving line was full of chef salads, fresh berries, cataloupe, and homemade soup.

My eye scanned the food in search of a greasy, artery clogging item I could question the schools nutrition director about. Aha, I saw it, a chicken sandwich. That patty and bun can't be healthy, I thought.

I learned that the Director of nutrition for this school system (in TN mind you) has been working hard to lower the sodium, saturated fat, and sugar in all their recipes. This chicken sandwich was lower in sodium and fat, plus the breading and bun were whole wheat. Maybe not the best choice on the menu, but much better than the offerings in years past.

In the kitchen, I was shown coolers full of fresh fruits and veggies while the nutritionist told me they were now using meats that are lower in fat, cheeses with less sodium, and a butter substitute called Butter Buds. What? Had to look that one up.

I was thinking this stuff looks good, but I bet it tastes terrible. Not so said the kids, and they had a choice in the matter. The school system held a food show where over 100 food vendors cooked up their best healthy dishes and allowed students, teachers, and other school system employees to rate them. The top choices were added to the menu.

This school is also taking part in the national Farm to School program in which local farmers provide fresh produce and other ingredients for school lunches. The first month they tried it, 1,500 gallons of strawberries were sold in 3-days. School officials and farmers agree that it's a win-win situation.

When I asked one 15-year-old student about whether he really cares about the nutritional value of the food, or if it's all about taste, he told me, "Taste is very important, but it's also nice to have some nutritional value to the food as well." How did this kid get so smart and beyond his years?

Just before I wrapped up my culinary trip around the made-over school lunch tray I noticed a chef out of the corner of my eye. This school system has a full time executive chef who is working on creating new healthier recipes, experimenting with herbs and spices to improve taste, and working with kids to help them make better choices.

Personally I think it's a move in the right direction, but schools across the country don't really have a choice. The federal government is mandating healthier school lunches. There isn't a set time frame, but the USDA is demanding schools cut salt, sugar and fat, in some cases in half, to improve the health of the nation's children.

We could all use this kind of education. It is expensive, but schools that jump to the head of the pack when it comes nutritionally, well balanced lunches will be eligible for federal funds.

What do you think?

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