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School Lunches: Fuel for School

Wholesome meals mean healthier students

Time was, school lunches were a throwaway meal. Kids got their primary nutrition from breakfast and dinner at home. 

But in today’s fast food and take-out world, where lots of parents don’t even cook, many kids have become more dependent on school lunches (and breakfasts) to play a major role in their nutritional needs. 

 That cultural shift inspired the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The act was meant not only to ensure kids get good nutrition from school meals, but also to help them avoid obesity and other health problems, such as diabetes.

 “We were way ahead of them,” says Rick Hughes, director of food and nutrition services for Colorado Springs School District 11. In 2008, he started the district’s Good Food Program. After personal research into the contents of foodstuffs provided by vendors, he became a strong advocate for fresh fruit and vegetables, organic meats and whole grains. 

He knew kids weren’t going to go for major changes in their diets, so he turned to his administrative dietitian, Jamie Humphreys, to make it work.

The changes were gradual. Lunch still includes pizza, but it has a whole wheat crust, low-fat cheese, and homemade tomato sauce.

“We had to find a balance between what they would eat and what was good for them,” she says. “If they throw it in the trash, it’s a waste of money and doesn’t do them any good.”

Every D-11 school now has a salad bar, where kids can choose their own fresh fruits and vegetables. If canned fruit is offered, it’s packed in juice, not syrup. 

“I’m not a food scientist, but I can read the current research, and we know some things are just bad for you,” Hughes says. The D-11 Good Food Project features foods free of growth hormones and antibiotics, artificial dyes, preservatives and hydrogenated oils or trans fats. No artificial sweeteners or high fructose corn syrup. The emphasis is on healthful, natural foods, including whole grains, fresh produce and organic meats. 

 It took kids a while to adjust. At first, some kids stopped eating the school lunches because they were different “from the neon yellow cheese they were used to on their nachos.” But Hughes says over time the numbers have come back. The district feeds 28,000 kids every school day. 

Not only are kids eating better, they’re performing better in school.

 “We had teachers call us after we made the switch and say the results in afternoon classes were amazing,” Hughes says. “One teacher thanked us because she had lost 24 pounds herself!”

The down side is that the new nutritional standards are more expensive to maintain. And the paperwork involved is cumbersome, they say. 

Some schools are opting out of the federal program and losing subsidies in the process. One such is Lewis-Palmer School District 38. 

“We started about a year or so ago, getting increasingly concerned with what we were seeing on the federal school lunch regulations coming down that limits the amount of protein we can serve our students at a meal,” says Cheryl Wangeman, assistant superintendent. 

The food staff tried many new recipes, but were seeing a lot more food in the trash. 

“In general, our students are healthy and active and we don’t have much of an obesity problem here,” she says. “Wasted food is wasted money. Athletes complained of being hungry. High school students were going off campus or bringing lunch. 

“We knew we were facing a point in our high school where we would be losing about $50,000 in lunch revenues. Or we had to walk away from the federal funding at the high school level. That was also a loss of $50,000.”

So the food service director and other administrative staff decided to try going away from the program for a year to see how it went. 

“The results have been very positive,” she says. Students like the larger portions of protein and more options of what they like, “but we still are concerned about healthy meals. For years, we’ve been making sure things are more healthy than they used to be. We have, at every school, an all-you-can-eat veggie and fruit bar. We also serve salads at every level.” 

The district has replaced foods that students would not eat with things that they like but are still nutritious.

“And we try to educate kids while they’re eating. We tell them, ‘This is what a healthy meal looks like.’ 

“In our case, we knew we should do what was best for our kids.”

The daily price for a school lunch in District 11 is $2.30 for elementary students, $2.45 for middle schoolers, and $2.70 for high school students.

In D-38, the daily price for a school lunch is $2.55 at the elementary level, $2.80 for middle and high school. 

The federally mandated meals cost about 30 cents more than the old guidelines did. But subsidies only make up for about six cents of that. The rest has to come from other sources or be charged to students who pay full price, Hughes says.

“But what price do you pay for healthy kids?” he asks.