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Healthy Foods Can Contribute to Bottom Line [The School Administrator]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
The School Administrator
American Association of School Administrators
Food Services Advertorial, October 2006

Junk food has been a clear winner among students for years. But thanks to the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 that took effect with the start of this school year, districts participating in the National School Lunch Program nationwide must adopt local school wellness policies that address healthy eating.

Not only are fried foods, donuts, ice cream and cookies banned, milk cannot exceed 2 percent fat, and juice has to come 100 percent from fruit or vegetables. No more than 10 percent of the total calories of any food product can come from saturated fat, there can be no more than 400 calories from any food item and
no more than 35 percent of the total weight of a product can come from sugar.

For many superintendents, the legislation pushed them to review existing policies or craft new wellness policies to ensure compliance with federal legislation.

“We need to encourage children to make healthy choices about the food they eat,” says Lew Finch, the now-retired superintendent of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Community Schools, who works as an AASA consultant on wellness policies. “But if we forbid kids from eating foods we deem unhealthy, we run the risk of turning them into bootleggers who head to the local convenience store to buy chips and cupcakes then resell it to their friends,” says Finch. “Somewhere there is a middle ground.”

Taking a Balanced Approach

Lillian Lowery believes in her district’s balanced approach to wellness. As superintendent of Delaware’s Christina School District, she says, “Healthy living and healthy food choices are habits of mind that children learn early on. The food we offer in our districts’ lunch lines should be focused on healthy choices.”

Christina Public Schools and many other districts have worked out ways to outwit junk food bandits by incorporating innovative, nutrition practices into their cafeteria menus and offering healthier choices in vending machines.

“We have food that appeals to many different cultures and many palettes,” says Tony Williams, Christina’s food service director. The former restaurant chef works with his team to develop meals that are attractive and tasty without sacrificing nutrition.

Participation is up, says Williams, when asked about the connection between healthy food and the food service department’s bottom line.

Tips From a Silver Spoon Award Winner

At Evans High School in Orlando, Fla., for instance, Lora Gilbert knew she was licked when it came to figuring out what students wanted to eat. So as director of Orange County Public Schools food and nutrition service, she invited them to design the menus.

The kids ate it up and immediately brought in family recipes for everything from red beans and rice to barbecued chicken wings, authentic Italian penne pasta and southern corn bread.

Gilbert modified the ingredients so the recipes complied with federal guidelines and were low in fat and high in vitamins and fiber. But she made sure the delicious flavors of those homemade dishes came through. The pilot went so well Gilbert is now considering expanding it to the other 16 high schools in her district.

“It used to be in school food services that if there was food on the tray, no matter how bland, it was good enough,” Gilbert shares. “But today, students are incredibly savvy. If we want them to eat with us, we need to do it right.”

Her district was awarded the Silver Rising Star award from the School Nutrition Association for the many improvements in its food service
operations that have brought the district firmly into the black.

Nutrition Education for Staff, Parents, Students

Georgia’s Marietta City Schools purchased a new nutritional analysis program that analyzes the menu, and posts nutritional information for a la carte items. it also launched a nutrition education program, which includes fun food facts.

“Did you know a tiny strawberry has more than 220 seeds, and that’s where all the fiber comes from?” asks Sandra Laffan, director of food service, who posts all the food facts on the school’s website, then sends home monthly nutrition newsletters with tips about everything from proper hand-washing to how to do deal with picky eaters or food allergies.

When it comes to preparing healthy food at school, Laffan is dogmatic. “Everything is baked, and there’s no junk food anywhere. Plus, we offer kids a ton of fruits and veggies on a salad bar at no additional cost.”

Laffan is not beneath hiding the healthy stuff in some of their favorite foods, either.

“The pizza crust is whole grain, so are the hoagie rolls and the crust of our corn dogs,” she confides.

Outside Vendors Offer Nutrition, Marketing Savvy

While Orange County and Marietta are among 80 percent of districts that have their own food services staff, many turn to outside vendors. One of the top firms in the K-12 school food business is Sodexho, a Columbia, Md.-based company that in 1998 decided to take on a nutrition-only strategy.

“The company poured money into high-tech nutrient analysis software and re-trained staff members to ensure meals complied with USDA regulations and the healthy advice of
leading medical authorities,” explains Tom Callahan, senior vice president of marketing for Sodexho School Services.

The goal, he says, was to give students in the 475 school districts Sodexho serves only tasty, nutritious options that meet government regulations. At the elementary school level, for example, Sodexho offers students at least five entrée choices, plus milk or juice and fresh fruit and vegetables on an all-you-can eat fresh offerings bar. For middle school students, there are 12 menu options and even more selections on the offerings bar. And at the high school level, there are up to 50 choices of entrees—including dozens of deli items.

Another leading food services vendor, Aramark, serves 650 school districts nationwide and has long been on the cutting-edge when it comes to marketing and nutrition.

“We’ve been in the school food business for 52 years and know from experience the No. I reason high school students go to the lunchroom is to be with their friends, says Carolina Lobo, vice president of marketing for Aramark’s school support services. “That is why we design cafeterias with cool lighting, funky graphics, comfortable furniture and hip music. Once we get them there, we feed them only the healthiest entrees, such as mandarin chicken salad and pork adobo.”

The nation’s dairy processors are hoping to change what kids drink, and this fall they put their money where their milk mustache is. In July, the Washington, D.C., organization MilkPEP launched a “Body by Milk” program that rewards students for guzzling the white stuff.

“At the heart of the program is an online auction where through Dec. 31, teens can use milk UPC codes as currency to buy cool stuff like sportswear, electronics and jeans,” says Julie Buric, senior director of promotions for MilkPEP.

Prizes aside, Buric says research indicates that children who drink the recommended three servings of low fat or fat-free milk (including the flavored variety) are not just good for their bones—it also contributes to helping them maintain a healthy weight. Plus, since milk contains nine essential nutrients (including calcium, protein and potassium) it really does a body good.

*****
Hope Katz Gibbs is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia and the Director of Communications for the City of Fairfax Schools, Fairfax, VA: www.fairfaxva.gov/school/school.asp. E-mail: hgibbs@fairfaxva.gov.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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