Fairfax schools push for more healthful food

Students at George C. Marshall High School will have access by next year to a commodity not available to most of their peers in Fairfax County: a made-from-scratch school lunch.

Meanwhile, the Washington region’s largest school system is hiring a consultant to figure out how to revamp lunch and breakfast offerings, turning out healthier food with fewer additives and more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

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Both developments are signs that a parent-led movement to overhaul the Fairfax school food program — a complex operation that serves more than 140,000 meals a day — is starting to take root.

“We’re excited to have made so much progress. It shows the School Board really supports this move to healthier food,” said JoAnne Hammermaster, mother of two Fairfax students and president of the advocacy group Real Food for Kids.

Fairfax schools have won many awards in recent years for serving meals deemed healthy by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But Real Food for Kids, echoing recommendations made last year by a local task force on nutrition, contends that the school system can, and should, go above and beyond federal regulations.

Those regulations allow, for example, a frozen pizza with 70 ingredients that include multisyllabic emulsifiers, bleaching agents and preservatives.

“We need to step up as a community and say those guidelines aren’t good enough,” Hammermaster said.

The school system is working to reduce artificial ingredients and other additives, Superintendent Jack D. Dale wrote in a memo this year, and it has succeeded in shrinking the number by two-thirds from the 2010-11 to 2011-12 school year.

But Dale cautioned against blaming school lunches for childhood obesity or other health problems. “Research provides evidence that school lunch plays a major role in keeping our children healthy,” he wrote.

Fairfax is one of many school systems to scrutinize school nutrition in recent years, spurred on by the increasing awareness of childhood obesity, local- and organic-food movements and first lady Michelle Obama’s high-profile efforts to promote healthful eating.

In the District, legislation passed in 2010 offers a financial incentive to public schools to buy produce from local farmers, and more than a dozen schools are experimenting with made-from-scratch meals. Arlington County school officials have also bought more local food in recent years, and most school kitchens have been retrofitted to allow for from-scratch cooking.

In Fairfax, the school food division is financially self-sufficient, supported by federal grants and student fees.

The School Board has directed the food division to set aside $200,000 this year to pay for a study of cost-efficient ways to improve nutrition countywide.

Most school kitchens across the county are equipped only to warm pre-cooked meals, not to cook them from scratch. The board told the food division to set aside $100,000 to test whether and how schools might prepare meals fresh on site.

The money will go toward renovating the kitchen at Marshall High next June, officials decided recently. Parent advocates and school officials are working to figure out what kind of equipment they need to buy and what kind of menus they can realistically offer.

“There are a number of issues that still need to be worked out,” school system spokesman John Torre said.

Ryan McElveen, an at-large School Board member who has helped lead the push for better school food, said he hopes that the Marshall pilot will be the first of several.

“When I ask students their biggest concern with our schools, the response I often hear is the quality of our school food,” McElveen, a 2004 Marshall graduate and the board’s youngest member, wrote in an e-mail. “As we become more aware of the health issues plaguing society, it’s absolutely vital that our school food offerings serve as models for what students should eat throughout their lives.”

Real Food for Kids has turned its attention to salad. Last year, there were eight salad bars in the county’s nearly 200 schools. This year, there will be 10. There used to be more, but they weren’t always popular with students, and they presented special food-safety challenges, school officials said.

But Hammermaster would like to see salads offered across the county, including in elementary schools, where young children are developing eating habits that can last a lifetime.

“If we wait until high school to teach kids about eating from a fresh salad bar, it’s too late,” she said.

 
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