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Giving kids healthy options

Schools fight for healthy eating habits but can't do it alone

Posted: August 16, 2009 9:28 p.m.
Updated: August 17, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Northlake Hills Elementary fourth-graders Morgan Ries, left, Jenna Rudolph and Nicholas Malsbury make pizzas at the 14th annual Kids Cooking Campaign at Central Kitchen on February 13.

 
The agencies that provide breakfasts and lunches to Santa Clarita Valley school districts adhere to state and federal guidelines that limit calories and fat contents.

But school cafeterias have no control over PTA events, student fundraisers and the food that students bring to school. In a time of rising obesity among children, the messages to kids about what is appropriate to eat can be mixed, experts say.

The Santa Clarita Valley School Food Services Agency serves breakfast and lunches for Saugus Union, Sulphur Springs, Newhall and Castaic Union school districts. The William S. Hart Union High School District has its own food services agency.

"What we've tried to do is maintain those favorite foods of kids, but make them healthier," said Tracy Fiscella, nutritionist for SCV School Food Services Agency.

Campus vending machines no longer carry sodas. They can sell water, electrolyte drinks and fruit juice-based drinks.

As much as the Hart district's agency holds to required guidelines for healthful eating, there is no control over what student governments can sell to students.

"Anything that's sodas or candies - that does not come from your cafeterias," said LeeAnne Frame, director of food services for the Hart district. "I have no control over ASB," the student government organizations.

But state demands that schools stop offering soda, candy and fatty food doesn't apply to what kids bring from home.

"We hope that people are making healthy choices," said Marianne Hamor, categorical programs administrator for the Sulphur Springs School District. "It's hard in a world where parents are working hard and sometimes two jobs. They come home and they're doing whatever they can. And maybe fast food is handy."

No soda is sold at elementary schools, and the food services agency works with PTAs to discourage selling food for fundraisers, Fiscella said.

Rather, the agency encourages fitness-based fundraisers like jog-a-thons, she said.

Junior high and high school students are unable to sell sugary snacks on campus for fundraisers, Frame said.

At Saugus Union School District, administrators remind parents and teachers that food should not be used as a reward for good behavior, said Joan Lucid, assistant superintendent of instruction and curriculum.

With PTA fundraisers, Saugus Union asks members to "be judicious in what you select," Lucid said.

"I know that children are motivated with a reward," Lucid said. "When we continue to reward with food, the message we give subtly or overtly is one of do good, get food."

Agate Dawson, a Sulphur Springs parent, would like to see classrooms stop serving cookies, cupcakes and juice during classroom parties.

"I've seen a teacher rewarding students in the classroom with Gummi Bears for good behavior. That needs to stop," she said.

What's in the food?
Both of the local food service agencies are required to follow state federal guidelines to provide appropriate nutrition for kids while limiting the amount of calories and fat.

Lunches can have no more than 664 calories, while breakfasts can have 498 calories, Fiscella said.

No more than 30 percent of calories can come from fat and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat, she said.

The agency's meals do not contain trans fat.

The agency only serves 1 percent fat or nonfat milk, she said. Nonfat chocolate milk is available.

Parents can see meals like whole-wheat crust pizza on the school food menu for one day alongside burritos made with reduced-fat cheese with high-fiber beans and lean meat on another day, Fiscella said.

Recently, the agency removed many of the desserts it used to serve and encourages children to think of fruit as a dessert, Fiscella said.

"We do offer them a cookie once a week," she said, adding that a reduced-fat brownie bite is also available.

Elementary schools have a do-it-yourself salad bar that feature variations of lettuce, cabbage, carrots and seasonal vegetables.

Administrators teach children how to use the utensils to serve themselves, Fiscella said.

The bar also offers fresh and canned fruits.

High schools including Canyon, Saugus, Golden Valley and West Ranch offer a deli bar where a student can create his or her own sandwich, Frame said.

Much like students served by the elementary school agency, junior high and high school students often see themed meals.

An Asian-style lunch includes tropical or teriyaki chicken with steamed rice, ginger-glazed carrots and fruit, Frame said.

For students who don't want to purchase an entire meal, schools sell a la carte items like baked chips, Frame said.

Individual items can have no more than 250 calories, she said.

The agency started a breakfast program last year that is expected to expand.

"It was enough of a success that we're bringing it into the high schools this year," she said.

Frame estimates the agency serves breakfast and lunch to a little more than half of the student body during the school year.

Working with students
The agencies also create lessons that go beyond the cafeteria.

The SCV Food Services Agency has partnered with Healthy California for the last decade to promote wellness.

The state campaign, run through the Department of Public Health, represents a partnership between state and local agencies and promotes a healthful lifestyle among low-income residents.

"Their main focus is to encourage kids to eat fruits and vegetables and be active at least 60 minutes a day," Fiscella said.

Healthy California offers a monthly program that highlights a seasonal fruit or vegetable, Fiscella said.

Teachers sign up for the program and receive literature about the food item.

For one month, cabbage took center stage, and participating teachers read a folk tale about a giant cabbage.

Students were able to taste red cabbage or coleslaw in the classroom, and coleslaw was featured in the cafeteria for the month, she said.

"It's an opportunity to get kids to try foods they haven't tried before," she said.

The agency estimates that about 3,000 students a month participate in the program, Fiscella said.

Teachers also receive training from Fiscella every fall that shows educators how they can promote healthful eating among students.

Cooking Campaign
The agency sponsors an annual "Cooking Campaign" at various schools, inviting students to work with the agency to develop a menu.

"We try to make sure it's balanced, emphasizing fruits and vegetables," she said.

The students work together to make their creations and serve them to the community.

"That's a great event for them to really learn hands-on how to prepare these healthy foods," Fiscella said.

A handful of local schools also host nutrition advisory councils, made up of upper-grade students.

Together, the students act as nutrition leaders for the school, creating public service announcements and posters promoting healthy habits, she said.

Some schools, like Canyon Springs Community School and Newhall Elementary School, have started school gardens to learn about where food comes from.

The Hart district's agency works with associated student governments so that students can sample meals and give feedback.

"It's silly for me to bring in something they don't like," Frame said.

A message to parents
Keeping parents in on the discussion is key, researchers say.

In the past, the food services agency has led presentations for PTAs and written for the school newsletters that are sent home, Fiscella said.

During the agency's vendor fair, parents and kids are invited to sample new food items and give feedback to the vendors and agency about school food, she said.

The agency takes advantage of events like back-to-school nights and open houses to meet with parents.

"It's really tough to get them to come to us," Fiscella said. "We try to become part of something that's already going on so it's easier to reach them."

Those events create opportunities for the agency to showcase what schools are doing and how parents can help.

"The parents really need to step up and be partners," Fiscella said. "If the kids have never seen broccoli, they're not going to eat it at school."

Living the lesson
Dawson, the concerned Sulphur Springs parent, avoids buying processed food for her children whenever possible.

"I buy fresh fruits and vegetables several times a week. Even if my children have a hard time with vegetables, I demand that they finish their food and I make sure they eat lots of meat and fruits," she said.

"I diversify our meals and go from chicken to pork to beef to fish. Diversity is the key.

"Because tomatoes don't appeal to them, I grow cherry tomatoes which, in their opinion, look very cute so they eat them without complaint."

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