Looks like the school lunch room sugar bully has finally packed his bags.
According to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. Teens swallow a walloping 34 teaspoons, mostly from sodas and processed sweet foods.
If those numbers make your eyes pop more forcefully than your belt buckle, rest assured that local schools are doing their part to keep excess sugar out of the cafeteria lunch line.
In fact, since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act became law in 2010, lunch trays are morphing into made-from-scratch meals featuring whole grains, fruits and vegetables, calorie limits and reduced sodium.
In some schools, vending machines have been upstaged by organic raised beds. Spice cake sans the icing has replaced gooey cupcakes. Salad and baked-potato bars offer green choices.
Julie Snyder-Popp, spokeswoman for the Durango School District 9-R, said local farmers participating in the Farm-to School program bid to bring their veggies and meat to school lunch menus – often with an invitation for students to visit the fields in which they’re grown.
9-R schools turn out 2,400 lunches each day, Popp said.
Private schools, such as St. Columba, also adhere to federal lunch standards.
“Kids have a lot of say, but we’ve identified the nutritional meals kids really like,” St. Columba Principal Kevin Chick said.
St. Columba’s restaurant-trained school chef, Scott Arbaugh, typically turns out 100 to 130 hot lunches each day. Some days, 60 percent of St. Columba’s 200 students buy a $3 hot lunch.
“Pizza. That’s their favorite. Today we served 156 trays,” Arbaugh said.
But don’t expect that tray to be just pizza. A serving of fruit, vegetables and low-fat or no-fat milk is part of the deal. If the kids want seconds, they have to make a decent stab at the leafy greens first.
Caesar salad is a crowd pleaser, too. Arbaugh uses croutons to “hook” kids who might otherwise pass on a salad that’s not familiar. Lasagna and spaghetti are well-liked, too.
Picky eaters exist, but once they try something five or six times, they become familiar with foods they might not otherwise choose. Arbaugh said most lunch items get served several times before a decision is made to delete an unpopular food from the menu. It takes gradual exposure to introduce change, he says, and sometimes pairing a green vegetable with a more popular food opens the door for kids to experiment.
“Kale chips. Maybe I’ll try those. Or kale pesto,” he said.
Arbaugh and other school chefs plans their meals up to a month in advance. To meet USDA standards, he alternates among whole grains such as brown or wild rice, barley, whole wheat, rye bread and lentils.
Lentils? These kids will eat lentils?
“Well, you can sneak them into a rice pilaf. Or maybe slip them into soup or stews,” Arbaugh said.
Spinach isn’t too popular, either, but it can be mixed into a pasta florentine, or served raw, as baby spinach, at the weekly salad bar that alternates with a baked-potato bar where kids can load up on all the goodies to customize their potato.
“But only one spoonful of sour cream,” Arbaugh said, citing the national childhood obesity epidemic. Bacon bits might be made available once a month as a special treat.
Arbaugh said he can track the history of the national school lunch program to show that when school lunch budgets are cut, nutrition suffers. It helps, however, when parents are aware and involved.
For both chefs and parents, it can be a challenge to come up with nutritious meals that still taste good.
Chick has observed that as the nutritional value of school lunches increases, participation in the program appears to drop.
Briggen Wrinkle, a 9-R school parent and mother of two sets of twins, said her children check out the published menus before deciding if they will buy their lunch or pack something from home.
Wrinkle said she balances whole foods with packaged convenience, sticking to a “12-percent or less sugar content” as a house rule.
She said she often “extends” a meal by repurposing leftovers into something nutritious for the next day’s lunch.
For example, she will take a barbecued chicken or leftover pork roast and shred it, then add it to a tortilla with cheese, she said.
For a meal such as a quesadilla, it helps to pack ingredients separately and allow children to assemble them when they’re ready to eat, particularly if children have access to a microwave, Wrinkle said.
Her 8-year-old and 13-year-old twins occasionally pack their own lunches, especially on days when Wrinkle leaves early for a morning workout.
“They start with a fruit, a vegetable and a protein – the essentials – and then they can add to that. They might pack a protein bar for an after-school snack, too,” she said.
Packing their own lunches empowers children and teaches them about good food choices, especially when schools provide good nutrition information, she said.
Rose Reiter and her brother Fred, both 8, gave a thumbs-up to Animas Elementary’s salad bar, but Rose said the chili bowl, served with a handful of corn chips, is her personal favorite.
By providing healthy garnishes such as beans, tomatoes, black olives, lettuce, cheese, carrots and cilantro, schools encourage students to make healthy choices.
“You get to make it yourself. It’s all there, the meat, lettuce. It’s everything you want,” she said.