Unit 4 Tries to Stay Ahead of Nutrition Standards
(Funded in part by a grant from the Lumpkin Family Foundation)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture this year unveiled new nutrition standards for school meals. It's the first major nutritional overhaul of its kind in more than 15 years. The Champaign School District is trying to stay ahead of new federal regulations taking affect this year and beyond.
Mary Davis is the Director of Food Services in the Champaign School District. She and her staff prepare about 5,500 meals a day. In her year and a half on the job, Davis has introduced more fruits and vegetables, and by next fall fruits or vegetables will be required on every school lunch tray.
Davis has even added tofu as another option for high school students, despite the added expense.
"Tofu is quite high if you get a regular serving," she said. "But we're willing to take those costs on because this is the way we're headed and we want to be ahead of other districts, ahead of any mandates and regulations that they may enforce."
The USDA currently requires schools to offer proteins, grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy.
In the Champaign School District, elementary school students are required to have all five components, but students in other grade levels can pick three of the five components for their meals to meet federal mandates.
Based on the federal requirements, a complete meal can be milk, juice, and vegetable, or it can be two Bosco Sticks and a milk, since that includes grains, dairy, and proteins. Kris Light Branaman has a son at Edison Middle School. She said her son talks about school meals the same way she did at his age.
"That is to complain all the time about it," Branaman said. "But I think that here they seem to have a good balance of choices. I know that's one of the difficulties of adolescence is he has to make the choice, and there's a lot of pre-packaged stuff that I hope doesn't choose, but I know he probably will."
Stopping by some of the lunch tables at Edison, the attitudes about nutrition among the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders run the gamut.
Tyler Thompson credits his parents for encouraging him to be healthy.
"Like when they were younger they didn't eat healthy, but now they're eating healthy, so they're like a role model to me," Thompson said. "So, I'm just going to be a role model back."
But for some students, like Erika Sepich and Mackenzie Williams, nutrition isn't a factor. They say their parents don't really talk to them about why it is important to eat healthy.
"It's our body and if we want to eat unhealthy foods, then it's on us," Williams said.
Mary Davis said offering healthy options can be one obstacle because of the added cost, but she said another challenge can be getting students to willingly eat the food.
"Students are in a hurry," she said. "They want to get outside, or they want to talk to their friends and they haven't eaten until the bell rings. So, they're throwing a lot of their food away, except for maybe their chocolate milk."
Davis said pushing for health and wellness is a team effort. At Carrie Busey Elementary School, she recently removed sugary items from the breakfast menu, substituting whole grains, bagels, and white milk for donuts, certain cereals, and flavored milk. But Davis said it is the teachers who must play an important role in encouraging students to appreciate nutrition.
Carrie Busey physical education teacher, Wendy Starwalt is trying to get her students to think differently about nutrition.
During a recent lunch period, she scans the lunches of kindergartners. She rates their meals on a sliding scale - 'go foods' like fruits and vegetables are considered the most healthy, 'slow foods' like yogurt and cheese should be eaten in moderation, and 'whoa foods' like frosted cupcakes and candy are reserved strictly for special occasions.
Students who eat plenty of 'go foods' can win a prize.
"I will make my way through and tell you the go food, the fresh fruit or vegetable, healthy food that I would like you to eat today to get your name in the raffle," she said as she walked around the cafeteria.
Starwalt began rewarding students for eating healthy three years ago. She gives out prizes, such as basketballs, pedometers, and a water bottle.
"If I call your name you may pick one thing," she tells them.
Starwalts said based on conversations she has had with parents, many of her students are conscious about eating the 'go foods' not just at school, but at home.
While the Champaign School District does sell ala carte items at the middle and high schools, it does not sell those snacks at the elementary schools. Meanwhile, vending machines are only accessible to students at the high schools.
Even though some students may fall off track at times, Starwalt said what they learn about nutrition at a young age sets a foundation for the rest of their lives.
"People used to only drink soda pop like on a Saturday night," she said. "Well, now if you go to a high school, you'll see soda pop all year, all day along, including Gatorade and Propel, which are just as full of sugar. We have to shift our kids to know that that's a treat. If you're going to have that, you can't have that all the time."
Many of the nation's schools are working to provide healthy meals.
The Obama administration this year announced new guidelines for government subsidized free and reduced meals - of which more than half of Unit 4 students qualify. Among the changes, meals will have calorie caps, sodium will gradually decrease over a decade, and flavored milks will have to be nonfat.
Some changes will be in place by the fall while others will be phased in over time.