Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Schools roll out healthier menu choices

While some parents are pleased, they say more is still needed

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Students attending county public schools will notice some changes to cafeteria menus, including more whole-grains and fruits and vegetables and fewer corn-syrup sweeteners.

Montgomery County Public Schools officials say it’s hard to predict how the changes will be received.

‘‘Whole grains are not something students are accepting of, and I would suspect that’s because they don’t always see them at home,” said Kathy Lazor, MCPS’s director of food and nutrition services.

All buns – hot dog, hamburger, sandwich – and all breakfast breads, cereals and pancakes will be whole-grain. Officials are trying to make the menu options enticing. For example, a whole-grain pretzel stick will replace an unpopular whole-grain dinner roll introduced last year, Lazor said.

‘‘We’re still trying with our kids to find a successful whole-grain pasta,” she said. ‘‘It’s hard. We even tried a soy-based pasta. It was a soy-based elbow macaroni and the kids didn’t like it.”

Last year parents complained that whole fruits, like apples and oranges, often go uneaten by students, especially those with braces or missing teeth.

Now Lazor is looking for a packaged sliced fruit with an adequate shelf life, but without a lot of added chemical preservatives, and may have found pre-packaged apples produced by Motts in the serving size needed with a shelf life of 18 days.

Packaging is critical in more ways than one, the registered dietician has learned too.

Last year, an elementary school pilot test showed that kids are receptive to soy protein-based products if they look familiar. The response to a black bean burger and chicken-flavored vegetarian nuggets was positive. The two items are expected be back this year.

Schools will also introduce lightly salted, baked sweet potato wedges, hoping the vegetable will be more popular when it looks more like a French fry.

‘‘That’s a big deal,” said Tracy A. Fox, a Bethesda mother and health committee chair for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. ‘‘There has been a cry from parents in general wanting more options for their children.”

Parents of children with vegetarian, vegan or other diverse cultural needs have especially hoped for more appealing fruit and vegetable choices, she said.

Fox, a dietician and nutrition policy consultant, is pleased MCPS plans to eliminate corn-syrup sweeteners from canned fruits and vegetables, instead using produce stored in water. Studies show the sweeteners contribute to childhood obesity, she said.

School vending machines also need improvement, Fox said.

‘‘MCPS has one of the strongest-worded nutrition requirements for foods and beverages ... in the country” and exceeds federal requirements, Lazor said. But Fox said surpassing federal standards — which consider peanut M&Ms and Snickers bars to have more than minimal nutritional value — does not take much.

‘‘We’re trying to create an environment where the healthy choice is the easy choice,” Fox said. She suggested MCPS officials consider new, more stringent guidelines written by a federal advisory board on which she serves.

The lucrative ‘‘a la carte” menu available at most county public schools remains a source of tension.

‘‘I think we have to be very careful what we put in the a la carte program in the cafeterias,” said Aviva Goldfarb of Chevy Chase, another MCPS mother and cookbook author.

‘‘Because when we put so much energy in trying to get healthy foods in the lunches and then kids can have the alternative of strawberry milk ... and Cheez-Its, then it’s what they will want to eat for lunch. And often do.”

‘‘It’s very hard to provide so many lunches for an economical price,” said Carrie Witkop, a Chevy Chase mother with children in MCPS schools who also advocated for the menu changes.

‘‘But it’s really important for kids, especially those who need these lunches — that they be as healthy as possible.”

Goldfarb and Witkop would like to see more fresh local produce and less processed meat on school menus, too, they said.

‘‘We do pretty well as a county, but I definitely don’t think we’re the most creative or the most progressive,” said Goldfarb. ‘‘I’m an advocate for better nutrition for kids, so I’m always going to push for more.”

On the menu

For a complete look at MCPS menus, see http:⁄⁄www.mcps.k12.md.us⁄departments⁄foodserv⁄. Menus include allergy and nutrition information, including sugar content.

What’s allowed

Snack items sold to students during the school day must meet the following nutritional requirements per single serving, as stated on the food label:

7 grams or less of fat (exceptions: nut and seed mixes)

2 grams or less of saturated fat (trans fat included)

15 grams or less of sugar (exceptions: fresh and dried fruits)

Source: MCPS Division of Foodand Nutrition Services