, Port Arthur, Texas

November 12, 2012

New for lunch: Healthy meals at school

Josh Brown
The Port Arthur News

— When the lunch bell rings at Memorial High School silent halls are filled with students coming from every nook and cranny, rushing to be the first in line for whatever is on the menu.

But now, instead of sweet snacks and pre-packaged meals, students are offered low-calorie, high-nutrition dishes.

New, healthier regulations for school lunches were implemented by the United States Department of Agriculture for the first time this year, and districts like Port Arthur ISD have eagerly acclimated to the changes.

Championed by first lady Michelle Obama, the new rules placed caps on calorie counts, required schools to offer fresh fruits and vegetables, and reduced sodium and trans-fat levels. Bread and rolls are now whole grain instead of flour, and all milk is low-fat or fat-free.

According to the USDA’s summary report, the “intent of the proposed rule was to provide nutrient-dense meals (high in nutrients and low in calories) that better meet the dietary needs of school children and protect their health.”

Rozana Watson, cafeteria manager at Memorial High School, said students have the option to take two fruits and two vegetables but are only required to take one of the servings.

The cafeteria at PAISD’s only high school has four different sections, including a salad and fiesta line, giving students a large selection from which to choose.

“We’re just like Luby’s,” Watson said.

The key to getting students to eat fruits and vegetables, Watson said, is to provide what they want to eat, like pineapples and strawberries, and make the food look fresh.

“If you have food they like it’s easier to give it to them,” she said. “They’re our customers and we have to make this appealing to them.”

Mark Porterie, deputy superintendent for PAISD, said the district has received no formal complaints from students or parents save a few mumblings about rice.

“They’re used to eating white rice, so when they see the brown rice it’s a little different to them,” he said.

PAISD started providing free lunches to all students this year. The combination of the district’s new policy and the healthier regulations has more students eating school lunches than before, Porterie said.

“We were already serving breakfast, and now we’re serving lunch,” he said. “We see, especially in our secondary schools, that they’re eating the free lunch and going to the snack bar. So they’re getting a good meal every deal.”

The snack bar, where students can purchase individual items not on the regular menu, also has to adhere to the new guidelines.

Not every school district is meeting the new rules with PAISD’s enthusiasm, however, as complaints from students have become more common in other lunch lines.

Linda Schnur, child nutrition director for Nederland ISD, said most of the complaints she receives are about the changes to homemade dinner rolls.

“They’re smaller and they’re whole grain instead of being nice, fluffy white rolls,” she said. “I haven’t had any parent complaints that I know of, but the kiddos are not real happy. They ask at the cashier: ‘Does your boss know about this?’”

Schnur said she is not completely sold on the new rules because they do not take every student’s needs into consideration. Athletes, especially football players, need the extra calories, she said.

“We’re reducing the amount of carbohydrates and proteins that they can have at lunch,” she said. “Yes, we’re increasing fruits and vegetables, but some people just need more.”

Texas was already among the leaders in advanced child nutrition regulations before these new guidelines were put in place, according to Schnur.

And just because students are required to take a fruit or vegetable, she said, does not necessarily mean they eat them.

“They’re taking the fruits and vegetables and throwing them in the trash,” she said. “Every time I’m in an elementary, not so much for the older kids, I hear them talking about how they have to take but don’t have to eat it.”

Robert Madding, superintendent for NISD, said he thinks nutrition should be controlled on the local level.

“We know what our kids need,” he said. “Before this was implemented, we were in the parameters of the guide lines. I think we should go back to that, personally.”


Twitter: @joshnathanbrown