Make way, mystery meat and mushy vegetables - homemade turkey chili and kiwi slices are the new kids in town.
As students head back to school this year they will find fresh, new meals in many of their cafeterias. These menu changes are a result of updated federal standards as well as efforts by local food service managers to make school food more wholesome and tasty.
Eating a healthy diet is essential for people of all ages, but students in particular need balanced and nutritious meals. Higher academic achievement and less disciplinary problems are two benefits of improving school food. Additionally, a growing number of children suffer from diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. A healthy diet along with other lifestyle changes often can reverse these illnesses.
Local food service directors have recognized this connection between food, learning and health and are taking action to improve the food on students' trays. Menus will boast a wider variety of dishes this year that include whole grains, colorful vegetables, legumes and less salt. Cafeterias must ensure that their meals adhere to recently revised national standards for menu planning and food safety while preparing food that is appealing to young eaters.
Students also can learn about the connection between food and health through classroom and cafeteria activities such as taste tests or a Farm to School week. Shelby Turnquist, food service director at Houghton-Portage Township Schools said, "It is important to get kids excited about eating healthy meals and introduce them to new foods."
Renee Salani, food service director for Hancock Public Schools, has teamed with Portage Health's Executive Chef Mark Pitillo to craft new selections for students when the lunch line begins this fall.
"Portage Health has made childhood obesity a focus for this year, so working to make school lunches healthier seemed like a great place to start," Pitillo said. "Besides, healthy doesn't always have to be boring!"
Portage Health's registered dietician has also weighed in on Hancock school lunch menus to ensure that each meal contains all of the required nutrients.
Alliances such as this between trained chefs and schools prove beneficial for the students, cafeterias and community partners. Students are fed scratch-cooked meals while professional development happens behind the scenes. In addition, money is cycled back into the local economy when cafeterias source their food from nearby producers. Pitillo purchases food weekly from farmer Chip Ransom and Hancock students can expect to see Ransom's produce on their trays throughout the year.
As schools continue to modify their breakfast and lunch offerings, Western U.P. Health Department will be providing support through a new comprehensive school health grant. This program will assist schools in a variety of student health initiatives including nutrition education, school gardens, cafeteria improvements and wellness policy updates.
Does your child prefer to brown-bag it? Pack a healthy lunch with these suggestions:
Include at least one vegetable and one fruit every day
Use whole grain bread for sandwiches
Provide water or 100 percent juice instead of soda or "juice drink"
Replace sugary items such as fruit snacks with grapes, melon or dried fruit
Excellent after-school snacks include: a piece of fruit, low-sugar cereals, whole grain crackers with cheese, veggies and low-fat dip or a whole wheat tortilla rolled with peanut butter and honey
Editor's note: Sara Salo is the new school health coordinator at the Western U.P. Health Department. She recently completed a 5,000-mile bicycle ride promoting healthy school meals.