In the lunch line: Maine schools respond to call for healthier foods, more physical activity

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SCARBOROUGH — It’s quiet in the Wentworth Intermediate School lunch room, aside from the metallic click of cafeteria tables snapped into place by custodians and the occasional clang as a lunch server drops a metal serving spoon into a pan.

Then the students arrive, some on the run.

Almost immediately, a pile of plastic trays crashes to the floor, children’s voices fill the room, silverware clatters and the squeak of shoes on the gymnasium floor echoes up to the high ceilings.

In line to pick up their lunches, students choose from baked beans and all-beef franks, or steak-and-cheese sandwiches; fresh carrots or celery; apples or clementines, and a small square of gingerbread cake.

Milk is low-fat, chocolate, strawberry or skim – there is no whole milk. There is no sign of soda anywhere.

And, while steak-and-cheese sandwiches or gingerbread cake might not seem like overly healthy choices, they qualify as part of the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge, a program of the Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that monitors school lunches.

Wentworth is one of 39 Maine schools that recently applied for recognition as one of the 1 percent of Healthier U.S. Schools nationwide. The criteria for elementary schools includes requirements that students have a different vegetable and fruit available every day of the week, at least one serving of whole grains three times a week and a minimum of 45 minutes of physical activity per week.

In addition to Scarborough, elementary schools in Falmouth, Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Freeport, Yarmouth, Boothbay, Saco-Old Orchard Beach, and School Administrative District 61 in Naples also applied for the national recognition.

“It’s about bragging rights,” said Heidi Kessler, school nutrition program manager for the statewide Let’s Go! nutrition and activity initiative. “Bragging rights are big. School nutrition programs don’t always have the best reputation, but things have changed.”

Kessler said the schools spent two years putting together the applications, developing recipes and policies that fit into the program requirements.

It’s up to each school’s nutrition director to determine how to meet the USDA’s Healthier Schools requirements.

“When there are choices, (the students) try more things,” Scarborough School Nutrition Program Director Judy Campbell said.

Campbell, a dietitian, has worked for the district for 26 years. She has seen a lot of food fads come and go, but one thing she said she is sure about is that students are more educated about nutrition now than they ever have been.

“It’s so much different now,” Campbell said. “They’re so much more aware.”

However, that awareness does not necessarily translate to better eating habits. According to a 2007 Kaiser Family Foundation report, 28.2 percent of Maine’s children were overweight or obese, and according to a 2009 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, 13 percent of Maine high school students were in the 95th percentile or above for weight.

Even Campbell said awareness is sometimes not enough.

“There’s always a group that’s interested (in good nutrition) and a group that will fight it,” she said, adding that a child’s peer group has a lot to do with the choices they’ll make in the lunch line.

“If it’s cool to have school lunch, then they want it,” she said.

In Falmouth, school nurse Sue Raatikainen said the school is encouraging students to make better choices by “eating their way through the rainbow (of fruits and vegetables),” and discussing the difference between white and wheat grains.

The school is also buying some of its foods locally.

“This year we have all grass-fed beef from Archer Angus Farm in Chesterville,” Raatikainen said. “There’s a small garden at the high school and we sometimes use vegetables from that. We’ve got Backyard Farms tomatoes.”

As part of the Healthier U.S. Schools initiative, the schools must ban vending machines full of sugary drinks or junk food in favor of water, milk and 100 percent juices with no added sweeteners, and include nutrition education for at least half the grade levels in the school.

Campbell has her students dissect a whole grain in class and, during the month of March, which is national nutrition month, she said students will “eat the alphabet,” by trying a food that starts with every letter (minus a few tricky letters like X).

The students even design potential menus for her to test their nutrition knowledge.

“Some of the menus are at least as good as what I would have come up with,” she said.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

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Gail Reny, who has been a lunch server at Wentworth Intermediate School in Scarborough for nearly 20 years, dishes out baked beans and hot dogs to hungry students. Wentworth is one of 39 Maine schools that applied for the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge through the federal Department of Agriculture.

A student chooses celery from the fresh fruit and vegetable bar at Wentworth Intermediate School in Scarborough. The USDA’s Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge requires different fruits and vegetables on the menu every day.

On the menu: ‘Fish Stix,’ Chef Boyardee, ‘Eggs McSouth Portland’

Many Maine schools participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge post their monthly school menus online, including a weekly nutrient analysis.

In Scarborough recently, Wentworth Intermediate School students had baked beans and hot dogs, scrambled eggs with ham and cheese, cheese calzones or grilled cheese sandwiches and a turkey and cheese “lunchable,” for a daily average of 1,239 calories, 52 grams of fat and 2,097 mg of sodium per meal, the highest averages for the month.

Later this month, the Wentworth menu will offer Chef Boyardee ravioli, “Fish Stix,” hot dogs and cheeseburgers.

One week this month in Falmouth, elementary school students had hot dogs, wheat dough cheese pizza, beef nachos and chicken nuggets, for a daily average of nearly 20 grams of fat, 679 calories and 992 mg of sodium, the highest average fat and caloric values for February. Last week, the school meals contained an average of 1,123 mg of sodium, the highest for the month.

At South Portland’s Kaler Elementary School students will have grilled cheese sandwiches, “Egg McSouth Portland,” pork fried rice and Hawaiian pizza, for an average of 784 calories, 23 grams of fat and 1,458 mg of sodium per meal for the week.

Fruit and vegetable-filled salad bars were available to students for all meals, and frequently rolls or bread products were whole wheat rather than white. However, in Scarborough, the daily peanut butter and jelly sandwiches available to students are made with white bread.

Fish, other than “Fish Stix,” was not mentioned on the menus, except at Wentworth, which will have a tuna melt available once this month.

Some schools offer gluten-free menus by special request. In Scarborough, the menu includes a chicken breast with whole-grain rice, corn tortilla with sliced turkey, and gluten-free cheese pizza.

When asked why hot dogs were included on the Wentworth School menu, Nutrition Director Judy Campbell said that was the only way to get the students to eat the accompanying, and healthier, baked beans.

However, not everyone agrees that processed foods like hot dogs and fried foods should be used to lure students into eating better.

Chef, author and advocate Ann Cooper, who started the non-profit organization The Lunch Box Project in Boulder, Colo., has worked to improve school lunches in Colorado and Berkeley, Calif. She and her organization have eliminated all processed and fried foods from all Boulder school lunches and have even begun giving away salad bars to schools around the country through the Saladbars2Schools project.

“Some kids aren’t all that excited about it, but if kids weren’t excited about learning a new kind of math, would we say, hey they don’t have to learn that?” Cooper said. “We’re trying to save their lives.”

Cooper emphasized the importance of teaching children healthy eating habits as a way to help them and their families make better choices.

“We say we need to teach them math and science so they can excel. There’s nothing we can teach them that they’ll do every day except eat,” she said.

Cooper said approximately 20 Boulder schools have entered the same USDA Healthier Schools initiative that attracted 39 Maine schools. She said feeding kids healthier lunches may be more expensive, but that any cost is worth it if it means improving children’s lives and health.

“So what if it’s going to cost an extra 25 cents, 50 cents, a dollar? So what if it costs an extra $100 per kid per year? What is our kids’ health worth?” she said.

— Emily Parkhurst

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