(July 25, 2010 - COMTEX)—When Indiana Department of Education leaders started talking about school wellness policies about three years ago, Beth Schave was worried about finding foods that would fit in the new requirements.
"At that time, they had all these guidelines and the vendors didn't have that stuff available," said Schave, Taylor School Corp.'s food services director.
Since then, she said, the vendors have stepped up, offering 100 percent fruit juice bars, more whole grain products and more items meant to be oven-baked rather than deep-fried.
"There are a lot of good products out there now. There are really healthy products, good healthy choices for the kids that they like, not fat-free food that is nasty-tasting food." School food service directors and the vendors who provide the foods served in school cafeterias are working to provide healthier options, to fight back against childhood obesity.
The issue has come to the forefront in recent months, with first lady Michelle Obama launching her "Let's Move" campaign against childhood obesity. Her goal is to put America on track to solve the childhood obesity problem within a generation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The prevalence of obesity among children ages 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 19.6 percent in 2008. The prevalence of obesity among adolescents ages 12 to 19 years increased from 5 percent to 18.1 percent.
Part of the battle is finding quality nutritious food that tastes good, at a price schools can afford, Schave said. The federal government reimburses schools a little less than $3 per Class A meal, or the main meal served.
"That's the challenge, putting together a meal the kids will eat," Schave said. "It doesn't matter how much low-fat or low-sodium [foods] you serve, if the kids don't like it, they won't eat it. The whole key is to figure out how to get the kids to eat the meal that is good for them." Dana Fillmore, Gordon Food Service manager of the nutrition resource center, which sells products to several Kokomo-area schools, said the company's school customers are increasingly asking for fresh, whole grain, lower sodium and nutrient-dense products for their meals. They are also looking for products without high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and artificial sweeteners.
Fillmore said the company has registered dietitians who can help food service coordinators find the healthy options they are looking for, and update them about new products as they become available.
She said as any new guidelines are launched with the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, the company is "prepared to make changes to our services and menu suggestions to help our school customers meet those guidelines. We will continue to work with manufacturers to offer products which meet the nutrition standards." Schave said in the past, there were no restrictions on what was served a la carte, because there was no reimbursement for those items. Schools could serve the higher-calorie, less nutritious foods a la carte and make money off them, she said. When school wellness plans were mandated, the a la carte line had to shape up, offering lower fat products, 100 percent fruit juice, and milk and other beverages without added sugar.
"They were more or less telling you that you cannot serve the hamburgers and the deep-fried french fries on the a la carte line," she said.
Schave said one big change she has made is buying her produce from Kirklin-based Potato Supply, which delivers fresh fruits and vegetables weekly.
She's been serving free lunches at Taylor Primary this summer, and has tried serving fresh broccoli with dip and cucumber slices. She said bananas and watermelon have been popular choices this summer.
"We've used very little canned fruit this summer," she said, adding that she does sometimes add fresh fruit to canned fruit cocktail.
Jack Lazar, Kokomo-Center's food services coordinator, said he's noticed that his vendors are offering healthier choices, such as chicken nuggets and fries meant to be oven-baked, rather than fried.
Fillmore, from Gordon Food Services, said the move away from fried to baked foods has been a successful trend, and said a recent trend is more whole grains in pizza and bakery products.
Fillmore said also that many manufacturers have voluntarily started reducing sodium content in their products, like canned soups.
In addition to the regular lunch choices, Kokomo High School students may also choose food sold by outside vendors, such as Pizza Hut, Arby's and Mancino's, which are allowed in weekly. However, the retailers had to modify their offerings to bring them within the school's nutrition guidelines.
David Barnes, Kokomo-Center's public relations consultant, said Mancino's eliminated the mayonnaise on the sandwich it sells at the high school, and Arby's removed some of the protein from its sandwiches to bring the calorie content in line.
Tri-Central Schools' food service coordinator Jean Harden said representatives from Gordon Food Service, one of her suppliers, are good about pointing out the healthier options for her cafeteria.
She said oftentimes the changes are subtle, so the kids don't notice them. For example, the popular bosco sticks, which are breadsticks stuffed with mozzarella cheese, are now available made with whole wheat.
"The makers are doing it so the kids don't really notice. If you told them, they probably wouldn't like it," she said.