Over the years, school lunches have evolved from mystery meat to “taco pizza.” And as tastes improved, so has the healthiness of the options.
A recent study from Virginia Tech showed school lunches are significantly healthier overall than lunches packed at home. Local school nutrition coordinators agreed with the statement, noting standards exist for school lunches while none do in mom’s kitchen.
“We are bound by strict calorie, fat and sodium limits,” said Emily House, school nutrition coordinator for Gainesville City Schools. “We must offer daily choices of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, 1 percent and fat-free milk. Of these components, students must choose at least three, one of which must be a fruit or vegetable.”
Students in the public school system have a wide range of choices each day with the options varying based on the school level. Children in elementary school may have chicken nuggets, pepperoni pizza or a salad while high school students may choose from boneless wings, more pizza options and fruit smoothies.
“There’s a better variety than there was five years ago,” said Sheryl Hendrix, cafeteria manager at Gainesville Exploration Academy. “We also do FFVP, which is the fresh fruit and vegetable program. We get different vegetables and fruits that maybe they have never tried at home, like grapefruit, starfruit, even cauliflower.”
Encouragement from teachers and staff helps the kids choose new dishes to try, and many times they enjoy a food they thought they didn’t like before.
“Sometimes they come in and (will) be like ‘Ew, that’s nasty,’ but they have never tried it,” Hendrix said. “Then sometimes they’ll try something like a chef salad with turkey or chicken and like it. So they ask their parents to have it at home.”
Parents of children with allergies can even read the weekly menu ahead of time at home to decide what their child can have. They can also help a picky child decide on new things to try or stick to something simple, like peanut butter and jelly with a healthy twist.
“Our PB and J is best for picky kids because it’s on whole-grain bread and served with whole-grain cheese puffs,” House said. “They have the same packaging as the regular cheese puffs, so kids don’t realize they’re good for you. All of the grains we serve are whole grain.”
House also noted parents can’t get as many whole-grain options because they come direct from a large supplier and aren’t offered in stores.
Not only do students not get as many choices at home, House emphasized the lack of standards usually means children get more sugary snacks and less fruits or vegetables.
“The stuff from home has much more sugar,” she said. “Our meals have less butter, less fat and no added salt. If the ingredients are better, we can make it tasteful without all of that.”
Even snacks have certain standards to adhere to. Students can purchase ice cream, but the bar can’t be more than 200 calories and those calories cannot be more than 35 percent from fat. They are also smaller to teach students about appropriate portion sizes.
In the middle and high school cafeterias, the program has larger portion sizes and different meals. House and the rest of the nutrition staff conduct taste tests with the high schoolers to ensure they like the options provided since they are allowed to go off campus for lunch if they have good grades.
“With them, it’s a lot of marketing,” House said. “We offer to-go trays so they can eat outside the cafeteria. They can purchase things a la carte, and we have tea or 100 percent fruit slushies. So it’s more like the off-campus options.”
In the elementary school, Hendrix feeds an average of 982 students out of the 1,032 enrolled every day, so school lunch is becoming more popular. House mentioned in the middle school, participation in the school lunch program is higher than ever before.
For parents who insist on sending students with a packed lunch, however, House has some advice on making the meal healthier.
“If you’re reading a label and can’t pronounce most of the ingredients, it’s probably not a good idea,” she said.
She also emphasized the importance of fruits and vegetables on health and encourages parents to rethink the snacks they include.
“Try to eat fruits and veggies as close to the ground as possible,” she said. “Fruit snacks are not fruit.”