When students in Prince William County returned to school Tuesday, they found more than just new classrooms and new teachers. Much is different on school menus this year for breakfast and lunch, to keep up with the new dietary guidelines in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
About 50 fifth-graders at Yorkshire Elementary School tasted some of the new menu items Thursday during a visit from Janey Thornton, the deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Taste tests are absolutely critical,” Thornton said. “We can have the healthiest food in the world, and we can mandate whatever we want to mandate, but one thing we can’t mandate is what the child actually consumes. So not only do we want the food to be healthy, we want the food to be kid-friendly.”
Among the changes to menus in Prince William: no more peanut butter. To help accommodate those with nut allergies, the school system has switched to sunflower seed spread. Other changes include more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables and smaller portions of grains and proteins, said Serena Suthers, director of school food and nutrition services for the county.
“We’re trying to mirror My Plate [the illustrated version of the USDA’s recommendations for a healthy diet] and make half of our plate fruits and vegetables,” Suthers said. “For children, of course, that’s hard. For all Americans, that’s hard, but for children in particular because fruits and vegetables aren’t their favorite food.”
The Yorkshire students tasted and rated five new foods: frozen pineapple spears, broccoli and cauliflower salad with raisins and sunflower seeds, plantains, black bean pizza and apple wedges and celery sticks with sunflower seed spread. The broccoli and cauliflower salad received mixed reviews from the students, but most liked the other new foods.
“We’re hoping that you all will realize that just because food is healthy doesn’t mean it tastes bad,” Thornton told students beforehand. “There are a lot of really healthy foods that taste great. We’re not here to tell you that you should never, ever eat some foods, because every food fits in a diet. It’s just how often you eat it and how big your portion sizes are.”
Bryan Prieto, 10, said that he had never tried a plantain before but that he liked it. Isai Ventura, 10, said the black bean pizza was his favorite.
By eliminating trans fats from the menus, serving more whole grains, offering a greater variety of fruits and vegetables and controlling portion sizes, the hope, Thornton and Suthers said, is that children will be healthier and better able to learn.
“This is the first time in 20 or 30 years that the menus have been changed to the extent that they’re being changed this time,” Thornton said. “I think it’s finally just an awakening, opening our eyes to see what is happening here in our country.”