Montgomery County school meals get passing grade for nutrition, with a caveat

Montgomery County officials are pushing for more healthful meals for the county’s schoolchildren.

A County Council-commissioned report released Tuesday showed that although the school system complies with or exceeds federal school nutrition standards, it is not a national leader in healthful trends such as eliminating processed foods, offering all-you-can-eat fruits and vegetables, or serving in-classroom breakfast for all students.

“Montgomery County public schools may get a passing grade, [but] there is more work to be done if we want to get straight A’s when it comes to nutrition,” said council member George Leventhal (D-At Large), who chairs the council’s Health and Human Services Committee.

School nutrition programs across the country are scrutinizing the calorie counts and fat content of their menus as first lady Michelle Obama has made ending childhood obesity a national priority and as the depressed economy increases the number of children who rely on government-subsidized meals at school.

Montgomery’s school lunch program served an average of 57,000 meals daily in the past fiscal year. Fifty-eight percent of elementary school students and 29 percent of secondary school students purchased a school lunch on a typical day, up from 54 percent and 28 percent respectively the year before.

Many students depend on the meals as their main source of nutrition. The school district also provided breakfast to more than 20,000 children a day and distributes meals throughout the summer.

School nutrition officials grapple with how to provide healthful meals that cheeseburger-loving children won’t just leave on the tray.

The report, which was conducted by Montgomery’s Office of Legislative Oversight, highlighted examples from across the region where school districts are making strides in providing more healthful options for students.

In Alexandria, 8 percent of produce used in school meals is purchased locally, and lessons are tied to gardens which can be found at every school. In Fairfax County, “tasting parties” help students sample and respond to new foods before they appear on school menus. Anne Arundel County schools offer all-you-can-eat fruit and vegetables with meals.

And in the District, the 2010 D.C. Healthy Schools Act set strict standards for fat and sodium content and requires that 20 percent of produce come from the Mid-Atlantic region. In the high-poverty district, all schools must offer universal free breakfast.

Montgomery has already incorporated many similar practices, if on a smaller scale. Its nutrition program has earned awards from the federal government and doctors’ groups.

Leaders of the 144,000-student district emphasized positive changes that have been made in recent years, with the intro­duction of more whole grains and fresh fruit. Elementary school cafeterias offer no fried foods, and secondary schools are phasing out fried french fries for baked ones. But officials said they remain interested in improving.

“Providing nutritious, high quality meals that all students enjoy has been and continues to be the focus,” Larry A. Bowers, the school district’s chief operating officer, said in a letter to the authors of the report.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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