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Magryta column: Sprucing up school food

There is a movement afoot to change our local school food policy. Last year at a tasting experience at a local elementary school, I was privileged to witness the fruits of a challenge effort between Salisbury Pediatric Associates and Rowan Salisbury Schools come to life in food.
The energy in the air among the nutrition educators, the kitchen staff and the children tasters needs harnessing.
A few months back, Salisbury Pediatrics Associates challenged the Rowan-Salisbury Schools to improve the school menu based on a few simple goals: reduce poor quality food, saturated fat and refined carbohydrates and conversely increase fiber, whole grains, vegetables and fruits.
These changes would model the best diets that are proven to improve health outcomes.
Considering the budgetary issues and governmental guidelines, the result was so much better than expected in a few short months of work. Broad changes are being made with no cost increases to the state.
This group of caring public servants constructed nine novel menu items that met many of the above ideals. These items were presented to 10 children for a tasting and evaluation. The children graded the meals based on how they enjoyed the meal and whether or not they would eat it in the future. The results were almost unanimously positive.
Sample items included red beans and rice, broccoli salad, spinach salad and a frozen cherry desert.
The end of this first experiment is the knowledge that change is not only achievable, but is in process. The cost of healthy food is and will be a challenge for quite some time until the federal rules and the Farm Bill are changed to promote subsidies of vegetables and fruits over corn and soy.
Over the last year, we have had great initial success in increasing healthy menu items while simultaneously removing others that are of poor quality. For example, at all grade levels there has been an increase in available local fresh vegetables and fruits.
Collards with salsa, minestrone soup and fresh pineapples now appear on our children’s trays more often. Roasted sweet potatoes and roasted vegetables are a common option. Canola oil has replaced margarine.
Amazingly, we are finally getting beef that is 100 percent beef! For years, our beef has contained soy, corn starch and syrup, and a litany of preservatives.
Future goals will focus on products that have fewer and better ingredients like cereals and juice boxes with no added sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Future menu items will be potato skins stuffed with vegetables and more soups. Someday, I would like to see hormone- free poultry, beef and dairy, cost permitting.
Our nutrition leaders are now participating in a North Carolina purchasing alliance with 80 school systems. This group bidding process will allow for better pricing and control over the types of commodity foods we get and their quality. As the general budget is set each year, we will gradually see a greater emphasis on funds for local produce. This will stimulate our local economy and provide a fresh source of healthy food.
I have been touched by the volume of concerned parents sending letters to me and signing my petition for school lunch change. Now the goal is to work toward a total healthy food policy.
However, there are many hurdles left that need addressing. First, the amount of labor involved in preparing vegetables and fruit for consumption by our children is significant. A burger sandwich takes little time to prepare, while broccoli salad takes hours of chopping time that gets into overtime scenarios that are not cost effective. Simple machines can be purchased that reduce this time and put us one step closer to healthy diets. Secondly, the cost of healthy vegetables and fruits is budget-disrupting in our current system. We should encourage our local and state politicians to investigate these issues and formulate a plan for future budgetary increases that reflect the cost differential in offering a healthier meal plan. Get involved and call your local representative and ask for their help. It is, after all, the health of our children that should be on their minds above many issues.
With that belief system firmly rooted in Salisbury Pediatric Associates, we are proposing a challenge to the business community and philanthropists of Rowan County. We will purchase the first new chopper at a cost of roughly $3,000. Rowan Regional Medical Center and F&M Bank have verbally agreed to buy a few more. We would like to see a total of 35 purchased ó one for every school in the county.
If you would like to get involved, please send a check to Rowan Regional Medical Center Foundation care of “Childhood Obesity Project.”
Finally, I would encourage you to thank Libby Post, Amy Hendrick, Jim Smith and Amy Smith for their tireless effort in changing our children’s food world. They are the engine of this movement and deserve much recognition.
If you would like to sign the petition for healthy school food, send me a letter or e-mail to cjmagryta@salisburypediatrics.com.
Magryta is a pediatrician with Salisbury Pediatric Associates.

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