School lunches in Wichita get a healthy revision

More fruit, fewer fries. Lots of legumes. Romaine amid the salad greens. And the bread on that ubiquitous peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Whole grain instead of white.

School lunches in Wichita and elsewhere will start to look a bit different this fall thanks to new standards being developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The guidelines mark the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in 15 years. And although districts will have several more years to comply with the guidelines, Wichita officials say they're already busy planning menus and making changes.

"It's not a revolution but an evolution, a gradual change," said Vicki Hoffman, director of nutrition services for Wichita schools.

"We've always done our best to be a little ahead of the game, and that serves us well."

The new meal standards are designed to improve the health of nearly 32 million children who eat lunch at school every day. The new requirements will:

* Establish calorie minimums and maximums for the first time. For lunch: 550 to 650 calories for elementary-schoolers; 600 to 700 for middle-schoolers; 750 to 850 for high-schoolers.

* Require all milk to be low-fat or nonfat, and require flavored milks to be nonfat.

* Ban most trans fats.

* Gradually reduce sodium. A high school lunch now has about 1,600 milligrams of sodium — more than twice the recommended limit, according to the National Institute of Medicine. Through incremental changes, that amount will be lowered over the next decade to 740 milligrams or less.

* Require that half of grains served must be whole grains.

* Require more servings of fruits and vegetables.

* Expose children to a wider variety of vegetables. Over the course of a week, there must be at least one serving each of green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, summer squash) and beans.

School lunches are facing increased scrutiny these days. The nutritional overhaul was prompted in part by first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to fight childhood obesity and the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which won congressional approval in December.

Meanwhile, a prime-time network reality show, "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," is aiming to change American eating habits, particularly in schools. Last year the British chef went to the most obese town in America — Huntingdon, W.Va. —and worked with the school system to change what it fed children. This season Oliver is taking his movement to Los Angeles, where school officials so far have not been welcoming.

Chris Farha, food service director for Wichita's Catholic secondary schools, applauds Oliver's campaign and the proposed changes in national guidelines.

"Part of our responsibility is to teach as well as to cook and serve," said Farha, a former restaurant chef and manager. When Kapaun Mount Carmel and Bishop Carroll began preparing their own meals about five years ago, she went to work for the diocese.

"You want to paint a colorful plate. Offer a variety, and give students the latitude to make choices," Farha said. "What happens in the cafeteria is just as important as what happens in any classroom. You've got to fuel the brain."

Catholic high schools offer made-from-scratch meals, including sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, fish tacos, pasta and ethnic dishes. A daily salad bar features mixed greens, fattouch, couscous, broccoli salad, hummus and fresh vegetables.

Farha says that kind of variety likely isn't possible for a district like Wichita's, where a central kitchen assembles about 30,000 meals — including many prepackaged items — and trucks them to schools to be reheated and served.

"You're talking about huge limitations — money, space, staffing, transportation," she said. "Still, we have to find a way to make changes, even little ones."

During a recent lunchtime at Woodman Elementary School in southwest Wichita, kindergartners Felilah May and Elena McManamy munched on fresh apple slices before starting on their hamburgers.

Second-grader Alicia Reynolds lifted the meat patty off its whole-wheat bun before eating it. "I'm not a big fan of bread," she said.

Maddy Robinson, 6, said her favorite school lunch is nachos with cheese. But she also likes apples and oranges "because they're healthy for you."

Hoffman, Wichita's director of food services, said her staff continually researches and experiments with new menu items. Their biggest challenge so far: finding ways to incorporate more dark-green vegetables, such as spinach, collard greens and bok choy, and orange ones such as pumpkin and squash.

Pizzas, burritos, salads, apple slices and even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are packaged in plastic because making them from scratch would take too long and cost too much. Same goes for buying local produce, one of Hoffman's unrealized goals.

"We couldn't get in fresh leafy greens and wash them and get the bugs out... on this sort of scale," she said. "What it would take to prepare the filling and prepare 22,000 burritos from scratch — we don't have the room to hold the people it would take to do that."

Still, the district tries to change up its menu and make or buy healthier foods. New items for next year include chicken tortilla soup, penne with marinara and meatballs, Asian rice with chicken and a spicy bean side dish flavored with cilantro and cumin.

In elementary schools next year, a chef salad will be a menu option every Thursday.

"The best food in the world doesn't do any good if it goes in the trash," Hoffman said. "We have to constantly try to plan recipes and menus that will appeal to kids."

That's where families play a major role, she added.

"These are things that need to be happening at home — including more fruits and vegetables, using more whole grains, lowfat dairy products, more legumes," Hoffman said.

"If families follow those guidelines at home, school lunches won't seem so foreign to kids. They'll be familiar with what nutritious food looks and tastes like."

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