Wichita school lunches grow healthier in phases

01/16/2011 12:00 AM

01/16/2011 1:07 PM

School lunches don't get a lot of praise, but for years in Wichita cafeterias, one thing was clear:

Kids loved the cookies.

"They were chocolate-chip or sometimes sugar cookies," said Vicki Hoffman, director of nutrition services for the district. "And they were very good, very popular."

But they didn't meet new guidelines for the types of lower-fat, lower-calorie foods schools can offer from vending machines. So this year, the cookies, once available for 25 cents apiece in the a la carte line at middle and high schools, are history.

Schools also are limiting the types of products that can be sold during lunchtime fundraisers, including pop and certain candy items, if the fundraiser is held where meals are sold or eaten.

Wichita school board members voted 6-0 last week to revise the district's student wellness policies to conform to new state and federal guidelines.

In an effort to curb childhood obesity in Kansas, the state school board voted last spring to require schools to sell only water, juice or milk as beverages. Vending machines with sodas and junk food can't be turned on until an hour after the last lunch period.

School stores, a la carte sales and fundraisers aren't included in the new vending requirements. "But that kind of got the ball rolling, and we took it upon ourselves to look at the a la carte guidelines," Hoffman said.

"It made sense that if we can't sell those types of foods in vending machines during lunch, then we probably shouldn't have them as a la carte options."

The vending requirements are based on state wellness guidelines that have been in place since 2005. They define three categories of vending policies: basic, advanced and exemplary. Schools must meet the advanced level this school year and the exemplary level in 2011-12.

The advanced level means schools can't sell soda or foods that have little nutritional value until one hour after the last lunch period. Exemplary requires schools not to sell those items until after school hours.

According to federal regulations, "foods of minimal nutritional value" include pop, gum, popsicles, candy-coated popcorn, licorice and certain types of hard or sticky candy, but not most chocolate bars.

Adapting fundraisers

The changes mean groups that raise money by selling snack items or pop during lunch may have to look for alternatives.

That could mean selling healthier items, such as popcorn, trail mix, granola bars or bottled water. Or it could mean moving sales away from the cafeteria, Hoffman said.

"Fundraisers can continue as long as they're not taking place in the area where reimbursable meals are served or eaten," she said. "Many fundraisers . . . can continue."

That means monthly pizza-and-pop sales at Northwest High School — a fundraiser for the school's Project Graduation activities — are safe. At least for this year.

"With the economy the way it is, we try to find ways the students can raise money themselves, without having to constantly hit up their parents," said Kim Eaves, fundraising chairman for Project Graduation. "Pizza at lunchtime just seemed like a good option."

The group can make about $350 in one day selling delivery pizza and pop, much of it to upperclassmen who normally leave campus for lunch, Eaves said.

"We hope we can continue, especially during the cold winter months, when it's slick outside," she said. "The kids seem to appreciate it."

New cookies

Hoffman, the nutrition director, said her staff also is working on a lower-fat, lower-calorie replacement for the famous cafeteria cookies. Members of a student advisory group tasted the new cookies recently and gave them "very high marks," she said.

The students also liked a new chicken tortilla soup and some low-fat salad dressings, which likely will be added to Wichita lunch menus next school year.

"We are getting their input and at the same time helping them understand the process of planning menus and determining the types of food being served," Hoffman said. "As the guidelines change, we have to change to keep up."

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