Growing Healthier School Lunches

O Nc Farm To School

With new national school lunch standards and organizations dedicated to promoting nutrition education in schools, lunch is becoming healthier. National and North Carolina organizations are working with Triangle-area schools to improve the quality and nutritional value of school-provided meals in public schools.

Farm-to-school programs

N.C. Farm to School connects school systems with local farmers to provide fresh and local produce for schools to use in meal preparation.

In the photo above, Mills Park Elementary School students and a guidance counselor served as judges at Advocates for Health in Action’s “Lunch In” while two local chefs, Martin Sreshta of Martin’s Curry Rice (left) and Jay Pierce of Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, battled to create the winning healthy lunch creation featuring turnips.  Photo coutesy of AHA

North Carolina Department of Agriculture Marketing Specialist Heather Barnes says that local produce in school lunches benefits students’ health, as well as the school district. All of the produce delivered to schools is Good Agricultural Practices-certified, so child nutrition directors don’t have to worry about finding certified produce for their schools. This can reduce the child nutrition director’s workload, Barnes says.

The produce is fresher because it doesn’t have to travel as far to get to the schools. Students in participating districts also can learn about where the food in their cafeteria comes from. The N.C. Farm to School program provides a newsletter for parents and teachers that spotlights a grower and a crop. The government-sponsored program also offers resources for relevant lesson plans and field trips to farms.

Johnston County has participated in the Farm to School program for the last several years. Rachel Findley, Johnston County child nutrition director, says she has had a very positive experience with the program. “I love having North Carolina fruits and vegetables on the serving line, particularly in a county with a rich and diverse agriculture. I think it’s important for the economy of North Carolina for our wonderful produce to be served to students,” she says.

Nutrition education for parents and students

The nonprofit local organization Advocates for Health in Action created a Lunch In series to promote health and nutrition to students and parents in schools. “[Lunch In is] a fun way to engage students, parents and staff about the importance of fresh, healthy ingredients in school lunches and to educate them about the school lunch program,” says Michele McKinley, AHA project coordinator.

Unlike a standard health fair, the series is more interactive with activities for children at every booth. “They sometimes get to plant a veggie or herb seed, taste whole-grain bread, mill the wheat and learn about why whole grains are important, sample healthy snack foods, play games or do art involving fruits and vegetables. They get to play with their food,” McKinley says.

AHA is creating a tool kit so schools can create their own Lunch In event. This will be available to Wake County schools for free and to other schools for a small fee. The organization fosters and supports community efforts to make healthy eating and physical activity a priority.

Food Corps is a national service program that works in schools to increase nutrition education and provide healthy food in schools. Service member Chesapeake First works in Longview Middle School, Longview High School and Hunter Elementary School in Wake County. She works with teachers in the classroom to focus on nutrition education and work in the school gardens where students grow their own produce.

“As much as possible, we aim to send leftovers, recipes and produce home with students along with the knowledge they’ve gleaned that day,” First says. She teaches cooking classes with the teachers, where they cook healthy recipes students can take home such as kale chips and sweet potato fries.

What’s for lunch?

National school lunch standards are changing for the first time in 15 years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced new standards earlier this year that will require more servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The new standards also require that schools only offer fat-free and low-fat milk. These changes will help reduce the amount of sodium, saturated fats and trans fats in current school lunches.

For many area schools, the changes to lunch standards won’t have much of an impact. Area schools have already been making efforts to improve the quality of their lunches.

“I think the changes will be a struggle for some programs, but there are many child nutrition programs already following the majority of these standards. Overall, our menus have been meeting these requirements, and we are very proud of that,” Findley says.

School lunch programs have changed during the last few years to increase nutritional value, and lunches will continue to become even more nutritious with the implementation of the new school lunch standards.

Barnes used pizza as an example of the healthier food served in a school cafeteria. It’s not the same pizza you would order in at home; it’s made with whole-wheat crust, tomato paste, low-fat cheese and turkey pepperoni. It’s something healthy kids will want to eat.

“I’d encourage any parent who is interested in what their child is eating to go in and see what’s for lunch,” Barnes says. “It’s healthier than you think.”  N

PACKING HEALTHY LUNCHES

If you’re looking to send your child to school with a packed lunch, make sure you’re including the nutrients growing kids need. Keep these tips in mind when you’re packing a lunch:

* Don’t forget the fruits and vegetables
The USDA says your kids should be eating three to five servings of fruits and two to four servings of vegetables per day. Tuck an apple or a banana and 10 baby carrots in your kid’s lunch box to take care of a serving of each.

* Include protein
Whether it’s meat on a sandwich or pasta salad with beans, make sure your child is getting enough protein.

* Pack milk or give your child money for milk.
Low-fat or fat-free milk is a good source of calcium for strong bones. It has a lot of nutrients without the sugar of fruit drinks or juices.

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