Students in area schools are choosing whole grains and fresh fruits for their school lunches in an effort to target high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
The Department of Food Services in Jackson County Public Schools participate in an initiative designed to make school meals more nutritious. The schools participate in the program through the Community Eligibility Provision, which means all students are eligible for free meals based on the combined average income of the students’ households.
“No child will pay for a meal,” says Tracy Bingham, director of food services for Jackson County Public Schools. “All children eat for free, and now they have healthier choices to choose from.”
Pizza from the cafeteria now has a whole grain crust. There is a larger selection of fruits and vegetables. And even snacks are more nutritious.
“A Rice Krispie bar has to be healthier,” Bingham says. “It has to be a whole grain Rice Krispie bar.”
Bingham says the program sets calorie limits on meals based on the students grade level. Lunches must also have no trans fats and must be low in sodium. Beverages for elementary and middle school students may only have a specified number of ounces. The drinks may not have any artificial flavorings, and they must not be carbonated.
School menus under the program must contain at least five items, and students are required to select at least three. A typical breakfast menu may include a yogurt parfait, cereal and graham crackers or an egg muffin along with fruit juice or milk. Lunch menus often include a chicken sandwich on whole wheat, tangerine chicken or spaghetti with meatballs. Students can then choose from a variety of fruits and vegetables such as a Romaine salad with cherry tomatoes, glazed carrots, broccoli or fruit cocktail. Salad dressings and sauces are typically low-fat options.
“The goal is to teach them to make healthier choices,” Bingham says.
This region has one of the nation’s highest rates of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. School officials are hopeful this will make a difference.
This is the third year since the program was implemented, so it’s a little early to know how effective it will be. Bingham says the estimated 2,300 students in Jackson County are learning to eat from the healthier menu, but it took some getting used to.
“When you change their pizza crust, they notice it, and they will let you know about it,” Bingham says.
For more information about the Jackson County Public Schools, visit www.jacksoncounty.k12.ky.us.