Please Sir, Can I Have Some More…Salad

After Labor Day, students attending Denver public schools may notice some differences on the lunch menu.

More fruit. More veggies. Salads every day. Several choices for the main course, including at least one sandwich daily.These are changes that Debi Miller, a supervisor with Food and Nutrition Services for Denver Public Schools is bringing to school cuisine in Denver. “We’re following market trends toward more fresh food, less processed foods,” says Miller.

Menus must also comply with federal dietary guidelines that require, for example, that no more than 30 percent of the calories in the food served over the course of a week come from fat.

The menu refining in Denver is one part of a state-wide effort by schools to comply with a 2005 law, sponsored by House Majority Leader Alice Madden, which required that Colorado schools adopt “wellness” policies by July of this year. This year a new federal mandate also goes into effect requiring that schools receiving lunch subsidies create such a plan.

The inspiration for all of these efforts: the plague of childhood obesity. Seventeen percent of American kids are overweight, and more children are developing health problems such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes, until recently seen only in adults. The obesity rate of adolescents has tripled since 1980, reports The New York Times.

Denver’s wellness plan has three goals: to teach students about healthy lifestyles, to provide nutritious food, and to encourage physical activity. Around the state, other school districts have also been creating similar plans.

For example, in Douglas County, the plan dictates that elementary students get 20 minutes of supervised play outside each day, reported Denver Post reporter Jack Cox. In Brush, a town on the eastern plains, there are specific guidelines about what type of food parents can bring for parties on holidays such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day.

But while intentions are good, there are still formidable obstacles in the way to making school food healthy. Some of these are erected by the federal government. Back in 1946, when the federal School Lunch Act was passed, the problem was not enough food for children, not too much, and the idea was to make lunch available to any child who needed it.

Over the years the program has been modified; however, 20 percent of the foods served are Agriculture Department commodities, dictated more by the arcane process of federal agriculture policy than thoughts to child nutrition.

Schools are also required to break even financially, making cost a big factor when deciding what to serve. Cost also affects ability to serve fresh food.

“Lots of schools can’t do preparation,” says Garry Auld, professor with the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and Colorado State University. “They don’t have the facilities any more to do preparation. Only a handful of schools have kitchens.”

Student participation also affects the bottom line. The more children who eat at the schools, the more money the program has, and the more money it has, the better able it is to afford to hire people to do on-site food preparation, said  Miller.

In an attempt to increase the number of children eating at school, this year Denver Public Schools is offering free breakfast to all students. Right now in some schools the participation rate for school breakfasts is as low as ten percent. “It’s really important to get off to a healthy start to the day,” said Miller.

[cross posted at Muckraking Mom]

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About the Author

Nancy Watzman

is a Denver-based writer.

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