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The Checkup

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Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

School Lunches, Making the Grade?

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By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, September 30, 2008; Page HE01

This is the first appearance of The Post's new nutrition column.

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Full disclosure: I have an abiding fondness for certain school lunch items from my youth, including a peculiar breed of bland and flabby pizza that, while nearly nutrition- and taste-free, had a comforting mouth-feel that I sometimes yearn for 30-odd years later. My husband, who, like me, grew up in Montgomery County, developed a lifelong passion for Salisbury steak, something he might never have encountered had it not been for the school cafeteria.

That being said, both of us could certainly get up for a nice plate of Chips Olé With Whole Grain Taco Pieces. Or Asian Chicken Drummies With Corn.

Those are two of the carefully constructed concoctions of whole grains, vegetables, low-fat proteins and other healthful ingredients that appear on the menu nowadays in Montgomery County public schools, where kids can also dine on Teriyaki Beef Bites With Asian Vegetables, a Baked Chicken Patty Sandwich With Green Beans, and Baked Shrimp Poppers With Cheesy Rice. Montgomery also uses applesauce instead of fats when baking cookies and doesn't add salt to foods it offers, instead adding flavor through a variety of spices.

Montgomery's school lunch program has won praise for serving a variety of nutritious meals. But for school systems across the nation, achieving the right balance of nutrition, kid appeal and affordability is a challenge, especially as food prices continue to rise. It gets even more complicated as kids demand vegetarian, vegan and their own ethnic foods, and those with food allergies require safe lunchtime options.

Oct. 13-17 is National School Lunch Week. If you haven't done so already, that might be a good time to talk with your kids about what they eat at school, what they like, what they hate and why. And if you really want to help out, you might drop your school a note about what you learned.

Montgomery County, which has eight staff dietitians to plan and implement its school lunch program, solicits input from parents, according to Kathy Lazor, head of the school system's food and nutrition services division. But it hears from only a small, vocal number. Students tend to vote with their forks: Stuff they don't like gets left on the plate. Since it all costs money, schools try hard to avoid waste by constantly seeking healthful foods that have the same appeal as fast-food or homemade favorites.

In the District, the path to nutritious and student-friendly school lunches has been rocky. But last year, the system hired a private company to run the food service. Now, along with such lunch-menu choices as Twin Baja Soft Fish Tacos, Flatiron Fajitas and Asian Noodle Bowl, District schools offer information about foods' nutritional content and guidance in making sound choices, and advise parents on how to encourage healthy eating habits at home.

Like nearly all school systems, the District participates in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program ( http://www.fns.usda.gov/cga/FactSheets/school_meals.htm). These schools develop menus that meet the USDA's Dietary Guidelines: Each meal can get no more than 30 percent of its calories from fat (less than 10 percent from saturated fat) and must provide a third of the recommended dietary allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories. In return, schools are reimbursed for a large percentage of the cost. Schools must also offer free or reduced-price lunches to children of lower-income families. (Efforts are underway to firm up the eligibility requirements for this part of the program, as it appears some kids who don't qualify are somehow taking advantage.)

With or without federal prodding, it appears that schools are trying to provide the best food they can. But what can we parents do to be sure our kids are in fact eating well at school? Here are a few ideas, gleaned from my conversations with school nutrition professionals;

· Read the weekly or monthly menu on your school's Web site. It might offer an overview of overall nutrition goals and a way to provide feedback or to ask questions.

· Familiarize yourself with the school district's wellness policy. Besides laying out the basic menu, it addresses the nutritional value of snacks sold in vending machines or in fundraisers, treats in the classroom and cafeteria foods outside the standard menu. This should give you a sense of what the kids might be spending their lunch money on besides a healthy lunch.

· Ask your school for information about what's being taught about nutrition in the classroom, and be open to applying those lessons at home, too.

· Talk to your kids about what they eat at school. Does she ever try the vegetarian option? What do his friends usually choose? And if they say they liked the broccoli they tried in the cafeteria, run -- don't walk! -- to the market and buy some.

Vegetarians, vegans and those who simply value more plant-based items in their kids' diets should have a look at the recent school-lunch rankings issued by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The PCRM gave top marks to Montgomery County and Fairfax County public schools for offering soy milk and other plant-based menu options, for instance. As The Post reported in July, though, an organization affiliated with PCRM chided both school systems for featuring too much processed meat on their menus.

But the main organization to keep up with is the National School Lunch Program, which was launched in 1947 as a means of fattening up America's malnourished kids. Military authorities had expressed alarm at the number of undernourished young people they encountered when enlisting soldiers to fight World War II. Of course, 60 years later the tide has shifted: Far from needing to fatten kids up, we need to help them slim down.

The NSLP is a work in progress, and it still may have a ways to go. But clearly we've moved beyond the just-fill-their-bellies ideology of my youth. Case in point: Lazor says that in the 22 years she has been in Montgomery County, she has never seen Salisbury steak on a school lunch menu.

Makes you wonder where the Salisbury steak fans of tomorrow will come from.

See today's The Checkup blog (voices.washingtonpost.com/checkup) for a look at another key issue in children's nutrition: Should schools sell snacks and sodas and use the proceeds to keep healthy-lunch prices down?


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