Cold greasy corndogs.
Three-day-old pizza slices.
Stomach aches that last from lunch period through the bus ride home.
School lunches are beginning to lose negative connotations such as these, thanks to recent legislation and efforts of school food service personnel to provide a healthier menu to students.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed by U.S. Congress in 2010 and updated for the 2012-2013 school year. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website, the act allows USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, opportunity to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children.
At a local school district level, this means a lot of changes, improvements and tweaking of the lunch lines.
Joanne Pesota, Abington Heights School District food service director of 33 years, has seen a lot of changes implemented in the system since she first started her career, and she said the new guidelines have not made things easy. While she agrees wholeheartedly with the concept and values behind them, she said practical implementation is the difficult part, especially when similar guidelines are lacking in the students' homes.
We need all the support we can get from the parents and the community, she said.
According to Pesota, the improved lunch program is experiencing a smoother takeoff in the high school than in the middle school, partially because the older students are more health-conscious than younger ones, often due to activities such as sports. She said the main way parents, especially those of middle school students, can help improve their children's health is by feeding them at home according to the same nutritious standards by which they are required to eat in the school cafeteria.
The lunch menu at the high school, which is almost identical to that of the middle school, includes: a diverse selection of fruits and vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, kiwi, packaged apple slices, grapes and more; salads made with romaine lettuce; daily meal specials such as whole grain pasta with chicken parmesan made with unbreaded white meat chicken patty and fat-free mozzarella cheese; pizza made with whole grain crust; sandwiches made on whole grain bread with healthy portions of meat and cheese and other foods selected to meet the nutrition standards set by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act and subsequent National School Lunch Program.
TIPS FOR HEALTHY EATING
It is important for students to eat healthy both at school and at home, according to Joanne Pesota, Abington Heights School District food service director and registered dietician.
This is when we establish the eating patterns of a lifetime, she explained. Pesota offers parents three tips to help children develop healthy eating patterns:
• Provide whole grains at home and in bagged lunches. If a child prefers white bread, try a white variety of whole grain bread available at the grocery store.
• Use fruits as desserts.
• Offer vegetables and fruits as snacks. Children will eat what is most readily available to them, whether that's a bag of chips or a bag of apple slices. Cutting up broccoli and celery sticks and leaving them in the fridge makes these healthy foods more available as a snack.
THE HEALTHY HUNGER-FREE KIDS ACT OF 2010
According to the Abington Heights School District website, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act includes the following key points in order to improve child nutrition programs and make meals and offerings more nutritious:
• Half of the grains offered must be whole grain-rich.
• Milk selections include fat free (flavored and unflavored) and 1 percent fat unflavored only.
• Students are required to take at least 1/2 cup of fruit or vegetable with every meal.
• The components for reimbursable meals must be identified near the serving line.
• A variety of vegetables must be offered daily and there is a weekly minimum for legumes, beans and peas and dark green and red and orange vegetables.
• Products must not contain trans fats.
• There is now a minimum and maximum allowance for meats and meat alternates, bread and bread alternates and calorie levels. Limits are based on the age of the children to insure proper portion size.
• The single menu planning approach will be food based menu planning for all age groups.
• The act increases the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, added sugars and sodium.
• The act also strengthens local school wellness policies with an emphasis on classroom celebrations, fundraising options, vending machine choices located anywhere on school property and school stores.