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Dinner bell follows class bell at some D.C. schools

Jadah Adams,8, enjoys a plum during supper at Thomas Elementary in Northeast Washington. Dinner is now part of extensive meal programs to fight hunger, poor nutrition and obesity.
Jadah Adams,8, enjoys a plum during supper at Thomas Elementary in Northeast Washington. Dinner is now part of extensive meal programs to fight hunger, poor nutrition and obesity. (Jonathan Newton)

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CrecynthiaHall-Cooper, president of the PTA at Thomas Elementary, said that she makes an effort to expose her daughter, Christina, 8, to different kinds of produce at home, but that many of her schoolmates do not eat many vegetables.

"Most of the fruits, they know. They're good with that. But some of them have never seen cauliflower or squash," Hall-Cooper said. "It's less financial than they have just never been introduced to it."

Houston Elementary, where 90 percent of the 250 children meet income guidelines for free and reduced-price lunches, is an area of the city that the research group says suffers from poor access to healthy, affordable food.

"A lot of these kids have never seen a pear or held a plum," said David Strong, culinary director for Fresh Start, the catering arm of DC Central Kitchen, which prepares from-scratch meals at seven public schools as part of the District's food overhaul. Strong recalled a back-to-school night last month at Kelly Miller Middle School, also in Northeast, when he asked an audience of parents if they'd had a piece of fresh fruit in the past two weeks.

"Maybe two or three people raised their hands," Strong said.

A 2009 study by the D.C. Health Department concluded that 43 percent of students enrolled in public schools were overweight or obese, one of the highest rates in the nation. It was part of the impetus for the D.C. Council's passage earlier this year of the Healthy Schools Act, which mandated that school menus include low-calorie and low-fat meals.

Menus have been revamped completely. Gone are mystery meat, congealed pizza and vegetables steamed to the consistency of soggy tissues.

In their place, Mills' dinner offerings feature soy-ginger noodles with sweet-and-sour chicken and vegetables; chicken caesar wraps; and southwest corn, bean and cheddar salad. Every meal also comes with milk and some sort of fresh fruit from a farm in the region.

None of which means that if you serve it, they will eat it. Pizza on flat bread crust with fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce is a favorite. The three-bean salad, not so much.

"I don't eat salad. It makes me sick," said D'Andre, a Houston second-grader, who left his chef salad unopened in its clear plastic container and instead tucked into a bag of Doritos, washed down with a hefty pouch of Kool Aid Jammers Grape juice.

Emanuel Gross, a fourth-grader at Thomas Elementary, passed up his roast beef wrap last week for a bag of Doritos. He said he expected to have a "TV dinner" when he got home. Another student said she was having lasagna that she liked to sprinkle with sugar.

Strong said that getting teachers to buy into the idea of healthy foods also has been a challenge.

"These kids are getting wonderful from-scratch cooking, and then they go back to their homeroom and it smells like a quarter-pounder with cheese, where teachers are walking up and down the hall with their big Wendy's cups," Strong said. "Now we're a little bit past that."


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