Subtle, healthy changes in school lunches around the Valley

What makes a good school lunch?

Serving a mid-day meal to school children dates back to the turn of the century, when young students, post Industrial Revolution, became the focus of social scientists, nutrition experts, government researchers and welfare groups, according to the Food Timeline.

Community leaders began to understand the connection between good nutrition and learning, and an awareness of the dietary needs of children grew.

The sandwich, according to food historian and reference librarian Lynn Olver, who assembles information on the site, was a mainstay. It was a convenient way to “carry foods that are to be eaten with bread,”  as referenced by a 1915 cookbook.

Sandwich ideas from a cookbook published in 1940 included meat loaf, egg and

Courtesy Smithsonian Institute

olive, cheese and onion, salami, or peanut butter. A baked apple, carrot “straws” and celery were recommended to go alongside, followed by a homemade dessert such as cookies, puddings, or tarts.  An insulated container of soup was often included. Beverages were always milk or  juice, cocoa or lemonade.

Hot lunches were served to children in the public schools of large cities from the time of World War I.

The National School Lunch Act, passed in 1946, was intended to meet the needs of students and families as well. “The educational features of a properly chosen diet served at school should not be under-emphasized,” reads a House report on the measure passed by Congress. “Not only is the child taught what a good diet consists of, but his parents and family likewise are indirectly instructed.”

USDA recommendations for what makes a healthy school lunch, and how to teach parents and kids about what a healthy diet includes, have morphed over the years. In the Valley, school districts recently began following the guidelines.

The changes are subtle. Mac-n-cheese, pizza, and chicken nuggets may still make the menu- but the ingredients used for these old favorites have changed.

Michelle Dudash, local registered dietitian and author of Clean Eating for Busy Families, to be published in fall, 2012, says that districts are eager to spread the word to parents on what kids are being served.

The Mesa School District, says Dudash, has really ramped up their marketing program to communicate to parents the positive things they are doing, and what is new. Changes in Mesa Schools include:

– Chicken nuggets are baked instead of fried. There are no fryers in the school.

– Some pizzas are made with whole grain crusts and reduced-fat cheese.

– Flavored milk  selections are fat-free and contain only 31 calories more than unflavored non-fat milk.

– At least one entrée per week is made from scratch. New recipes are being tested and sampled by students. Mesa Schools plans to add more from-scratch entrees to menus next year.

Washington Elementary School District, in northwest Phoenix, has also instituted the changes, says Dudash, which includes a tweaking of ingredients as well:

-Cheese sticks are made with whole grain breading and reduced fat cheese.

From the Washington Elementary School District

– “Fruit or Vegetable of the Month” is served once per week for a month in elementary schools. Foods in the spotlight include gala apples, bell peppers, and watermelon. Kids love it, says Dudash.

– Dark green lettuces and sweet potatoes are served more often.

-Stir fry dishes are accompanied by brown, instead of white rice.

Next up: Dudash offers tips on how to cut through the confusion on what is healthy…and what is not.



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