Smarter Lunches Eating in EBR Schools
2011 Cover Kid Victoria B.
Smarter Lunches Eating in EBR Schools
By Jamie Lober
Featured in Baton Rouge Parents Magazine, August 2011
As parents, we naturally have some questions about our kids’ lunches. We know what they eat when we’re around to monitor, but during the school year? That’s a whole different story. So are you better off packing your child’s lunch? How nutritious is the food in the cafeteria? And what exactly are these new lunch changes we keep hearing about? In this article, we’ll take a close look at lunches in East Baton Rouge Parish and try to clear up some cafeteria confusion.
When schools are serving, children are watching. “School cafeterias are in a unique position to influence what kids eat because they serve meals to them every day,” said Dr. Nadine Mann of School Food Services for East Baton Rouge Parish. While kids should have a say over what they eat, wellness should not be a negotiable issue. “We feel strongly that we need to offer healthy choices to the kids,” said Mann. By delivering a consistent message about nutrition, kids learn to make good lifestyle choices. “We offer portion control with no supersizing, teach kids to eat fruits and vegetables with each meal, drink milk twice a day and eat whole wheat products,” explained Mann. With 35,000 students, this is not an easy feat—especially when so many kids aren't modeled healthy eating.
The switch to whole wheat hasn’t been the easiest, as not all vendors carry all of the products the school district wants. “This year we are adding hamburger and hotdog buns so it has come a long way,” said Mann. She explained that it’s a matter of waiting until the vendors can provide what the school needs. “Right now it is similar to us reducing sodium in items like whole wheat crust pizza, so slowly vendors and brokers are able to come across and manufacturers and distributors are able to get those products. So it is coming around, but it's not something that takes place overnight,” said Mann. A lot of kids are exposed to healthier versions of normal foods for the first time in the school setting. “We only serve brown rice and so many kids have never seen brown rice,” said Mann.
Whether or not packing your child’s lunch is a healthier alternative depends on what you are packing. It is thought that many kids are able to get a healthier product at school, particularly because they are in a high poverty area and low income parents may not be able to pack the same quality. “Parents need to mimic what we are doing with the school lunch program and offer fresh fruits and vegetables to their kids every day, which are expensive,” said Mann. Healthy meat is also a more expensive item. “Our ground turkey, ground beef mixture and mixed entrée dishes we make from scratch are a mixture of turkey and ground beef so it lowers the fat content,” said Mann.
Pink Slime vs. Lean Beef
Following a series of reports in March this year, the public was suddenly acutely aware—and terrified of—“pink slime.” But what exactly is this mysterious substance behind all the controversy? Well, it’s proper name is “lean, finely-textured beef” (LFTB) or “lean beef trimmings” and that’s really what it is. LFTB is processed and used as a food additive to ground beef and other beef-based products to reduce their fat content. “It’s the same type of idea as ground beef,” said Jim Dickson, PhD, professor of animal science at Iowa State University. “It’s not a New York strip on the plate, but it’s really no different from the ground beef that you buy.”
After the fat is removed, LFTB is cleaned with ammonia gas. Although that sounds a little scary, this chemical is completely safe and simply kills any bacteria that could be on the meat, such as E Coli. The uproar over “pink slime” has, however, lead to the elective banning of LFTB from grocery stores and cafeterias across the country to keep meat “100 percent beef.”
Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, US Under Secretary of Food Safety, addressed the issue, stating, “I believe it is important to distinguish people’s concerns about how their food is made from their concerns about food safety. The process used to produce LFTB is safe and has been used for a very long time. And adding LFTB to ground beef does not make that ground beef any less safe to consume.” Parents still want to ensure their children are eating top quality meat and the pressure has been on for schools to take LFTB out of their beef. The EBRPSS is among those, choosing not to provide LFTB in its meat this year.
Improvements cost money, however, and the lunch price is rising this year. “We had to go up on the price of lunch this year, so for our elementary students it is $2.25 and high school is $2.50 but for that price they get breakfast for free regardless of income,” said Mann. Breakfast has been free since 1997, which gives kids a great jump start to the day and is believed to improve academic performance. This year, high schools started a Grab and Go program where kids meet in the parking lot where the buses come and can pick up breakfast there.
There is also a dinner option, as the USDA Supper Program is now up and running. “Instead of snacks, I am able to offer a more substantial item like a sandwich made on whole wheat bread, fruit or raw vegetables and milk,” said Mann. Even though it is called supper, it is served immediately after school at 3:30. “We piloted it at one school and it was successful so we will be implementing it at five more schools in the fall,” said Mann. This will replace the extended day snacks, giving kids a better option.
Private schools are also improving their lunch quality. “Schools have a setting for minimum and maximum calorie levels and are focusing on reducing saturated fat and sodium,” said Lynda Carville, child nutrition director for the Child Nutrition Program of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. There have been major strides. “In the diets in Baton Rouge, we do not use any products with trans fats,” said Carville. Kids like that there are regulations to make them healthier yet they still have options. “We have a condiment bar which is like a salad bar with greens and yellow vegetables that are required and the weekly requirements are dark green vegetables, red and orange vegetables, beans and peas,” said Carville.
The trend is that when students eat school lunch, they are more likely to consume fruits, grains and vegetables than those who bring lunch from home. “We do not serve any soft drinks, only 100 percent juice, milk or water,” said Carville. It helps that the schools are monitoring calories for lunch as well as nutritional value. “For lunch, grades K-five get 550-650 calories; grades six-eight get 600-700 calories; and grades 9-12 get 750-850 calories, which are all new regulations taking place this year,” said Carville. There are many ways to meet the requirement. “We have a hot lunch which is something like red beans and rice and we make our own bread which is whole grain and we also have a sandwich choice,” said Carville. This can range from a vegetable panini to a poboy sandwich which is on freshly baked bread. “We also have a salad choice which can come from a Waldorf salad to a Greek salad to a taco salad,” said Carville. The goal is to meet everyone’s palette.
In the high schools, there are six choices offered each day. “We add things like cheese and a fruit plate and do smoothies and hummus, all of which meet the guidelines that are set forth federally and by the state,” said Carville. Schools meet the requirements for daily intake of protein level whether it is meat, poultry or fish. Sweets are limited since there is a calorie count but there are some. “We do a low fat brownie and low fat cupcake occasionally and there is non-dairy whipping for icing,” said Carville. “We offer berries like raspberries or strawberries on top of the brownies.” The key, she stressed, is portion control.
The school nutritionists feel their lunches are the best because that's what they do for a living, but they believe parents can offer a healthy variety, too. “I would suggest to do something with lots of fruits along with a healthy sandwich on a whole grain or whole wheat piece of bread and watch the amount of mayo,” said Carville. If you pack juice, make sure it is 100 percent because that is a natural sugar. “Water is always the best solution,” said Carville. If you cook the food yourself, be conscientious just like the school is doing.
So while packing a lunch is always an option, you can feel confident about your child’s school lunch, with all the great changes EBRPSS and the private schools are making these days. “I am proud of what we do and we were actually recognized by the Council of the Great City Schools,” said Mann. “It is quite an honor.” EBR schools plan to keep up the great work and parents should follow suit. It's a good idea for parents to explain why healthy choices should be made in the first place. Remember that kids are strongly influenced by watching the choices you make particularly about diet and exercise. By making small changes gradually as a family, you will be amazed at the results–and your kids will be healthier too. ■