(ARA) — School nutrition programs nationwide are serving more fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy, according to the Back to School Trends Survey released this fall by the School Nutrition Association (SNA). Findings also reveal nearly 70 percent of districts are reducing or limiting sodium and two-thirds reported reductions or limitations on added sugars in the foods available in school cafeterias.
These improvements come at a critical time as Congress debates Child Nutrition Reauthorization, the legislation that governs the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. School foodservice professionals are joined by doctors, dietitians, nutrition advocates and first lady Michelle Obama in calling for increased funds to cover the rising costs of healthy foods such as fresh produce and whole grains in school meals.
Survey results indicate more than three-quarters of districts expect food costs to increase in the coming school year and 65 percent anticipate that the federal reimbursement for free and reduced-price meals served under the National School Lunch Program will fail to cover the cost of producing the meals.
Despite limited budgets, school nutrition professionals and advocates seek new ways to promote healthy lifestyles for children to help reverse increasing childhood obesity rates. In addition to encouraging students to try nutritious foods, schools are working to incorporate nutrition education activities that address food choices in and out of the cafeteria.
“We feel the cafeteria is a learning classroom for students, and we do everything within our means to provide them with nutritious options as well as the education to make healthy choices,” says School Nutrition Specialist and Registered Dietitian Penny McConnell, Fairfax County Public Schools (Va.) food and nutrition services director. “We host student tasting parties, hold kids’ cooking classes and provide age-appropriate learning tools to encourage students to try the wide variety of healthy foods served in the cafeteria. On our Web site we feature nutrition information, recipes and a nutrition calculator for parents and students to learn together.”
Fairfax County Public Schools was named 2010 national District of the Year by SNA for its commitment to excellence in creating nutritious and appealing meals, implementing innovative nutrition education initiatives, maintaining a strong professional development program and exercising superior financial management. These components are emphasized in SNA’s Keys to Excellence best practice standards, which offer schools nationwide a benchmark for improving their programs.
The award provided the district’s food and nutrition services department national recognition and $25,000 from the National Dairy Council. The grant will be used to expand Fairfax County’s nutrition education programs, including development of an informational DVD for parents and an animated video for elementary classrooms to help promote the “5 Star Lunch” emphasis on well-balanced choices: low-fat milk, whole grains, lean protein and two fruits and/or vegetables.