Making healthy meal choices at school

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 15, 2014

The cafeteria is the “soul” of a school, according to Libby Post, director of child nutrition for the Rowan-Salisbury School System.
“You can learn a lot about a school from the cafeteria,” she said, adding that it’s the best place to see kids interact with each other and their teachers.
Whether students pack their meals or eat food served by food services, providing delicious, healthy and balanced meals is critical to help children learn and grow well.
School meals are important because they promote student health, Post said.
“We have a needy community,” she said, adding that more than 60 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced meals.
Rowan-Salisbury’s child nutrition department serves breakfast and lunch at all of the district’s 35 schools.
Some statistics:
• Three-quarters of all Rowan-Salisbury students get lunch at school.
• In elementary schools, 80 percent of students eat school lunches.
• Middle and high schoolers have a 72 and 65 percent participation rate, respectively.
• More than one-third of students also eat breakfast at school.
• That number jumps up to 58 percent at the district’s elementary schools.
“There are so many studies that show if kids don’t eat breakfast, they don’t perform as well at school,” Post said, adding that better attendance and fewer visits to the school nurse are just two benefits of eating breakfast.
Rowan-Salisbury’s food services department also provides after-school snacks for local school programs and for the YMCA programs that meet at Rowan-Salisbury schools.
Food service’s 225 workers face the daily challenge of creating tasty, kid-friendly meals that meet stringent federal nutritional guidelines.
“School meals have really come a long way as far as being healthy,” Post said.
The USDA says eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer proteins and grains leads to healthier meals. Those proteins should be lean, and the grains should be whole grains.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 implemented extensive new guidelines for school meals across the nation to promote healthy options.
“It’s really strict,” Post said.
USDA requires that all students select three to five components from each lunch’s offerings, and one must be a fruit or a vegetable. Lunches are comprised of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and milk.
These nutrition guidelines have affected the way the Rowan-Salisbury Child Nutrition Department does business.
“Fresh fruit is expensive,” and whole grain products are more expensive than those that are not whole grain, Post said.
“We had to raise prices,” she added.
In fact, it’s the fourth year in a row the district has had to raise their meal prices.
“The USDA requires that you look at you look at your pricing each year,” she said. “It’s still very good value for the money.”
Post said nutrition services has been hard at work developing new, delicious dishes that incorporate the federal nutrition standards. This year’s new offerings include:
• Upside-down chicken pie
• Caesar chicken wrap
• Beefy enchilada bake
• Orange chicken
• Cheese Ravioli
• Ultimate breakfast rounds.
“We offer choices at all grade levels,” Post said.
Students receive one of two entrée choices or a chef’s salad, three vegetables and a fruit. Middle and high school students have additional choices.
“It’s pretty hard for someone to not be able to find something they like,” she said.
“We do a lot of what we call ‘modified scratch,’” Post said, adding that child nutrition workers don’t handle raw meat in their kitchen, and often use pre-made sauces.
“We’re doing a lot more scratch cooking than we have in the past,” she said.
They’re also serving a lot more whole grain foods and fruits and vegetables.
Even the cookies and crackers served contain whole grains. In fact, the only non-whole-grain food served in the district is macaroni and cheese.
Post said after many attempts to create a whole grain macaroni and cheese, they felt their traditional recipe just couldn’t be beat.
Salads and chef’s salads are available every day at every school.
“Even elementary students will eat chef’s salads,” she said.
The district has received the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable grant, which provides more than $1 million for healthy snacks. Several schools receive fruits and vegetables for snacks three days a week.
Post said the constant exposure to fruits and vegetables can impact students’ eating habits for life. “It really does make a difference if you’re exposed that much.”
Fruits and vegetables are purchased through a co-op and the Farm to School program.
Students eat freshly roasted Yukon gold and red potatoes and fresh North Carolina watermelon, peaches and apples.
The child nutrition website features menus, nutritional analysis, carb counts, payment options, information about free and reduced meals and more. Go to
Some parents opt to pack lunches, rather than have their children buy food at school.
Val Velte, a corporate and community wellness nurse at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, said she packed all three of her daughters’ lunches from kindergarten until the time they graduated high school.
“I knew what they liked and tried to make it into something healthy,” she said, adding that there was less of a focus on making school lunches healthy when her children attended school.
Velte, a certified health coach, encourages packing a school lunch with bread, tortillas or crackers that are whole wheat and including fruits and vegetables, whether they are raw, cooked or disguised.
Boiled eggs, sliced chicken, peanut butter, tuna, low fat cheese and whole wheat pasta are among Velte’s other suggestions.
She recommends shying away from cookies, high fat chips, candy and treats with trans fats like individually packaged cakes.
“It’s very convenient to grab some of that, but it’s not always very healthy,” she said.
“Parents really need to pay attention to the labels,” she said, adding that low fat milk or water are the best drink options for children.
“Make it colorful so they want to eat it,” she said.
It’s no secret that many children are picky eaters.
“Picky eaters are a challenge,” Velte said. “Make it into something that is fun.”
“They’ll probably shy away from a piece of brown bread,” she said, adding that white wheat bread is a good alternative.
She also suggested cutting fruits and vegetables into fun shapes, or disguising vegetables in soups and sending them in a thermos.