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In U.S.D.A. Test, Five Districts Offer Low-Fat Meals

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In response to longstanding concerns about the nutritional quality of school meals, five school districts this fall began using new menus and recipes in an unusual effort funded by the U.S. Agriculture Department to lower the amount of fat and sodium in school breakfasts and lunches.

The five districts--Denver; San Bernardino, Calif.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Princeton City (Cincinnati), Ohio; and West Baton Rouge Parish, La.--received between $39,000 and $50,000 each from the USDA last year. The districts were expected to analyze their food programs and to introduce modifications this fall.

The funds allowed officials to train cafeteria workers in new cooking techniques and to promote healthier eating habits among students.

The pilot project marks the first time that the federal agency, which administers the school-meals program, has targeted money to schools to lower the amount of fat and sodium in their breakfasts and lunches.

The grant program was praised by nutrition activists, who have long maintained that school meals do not reflect the current scientific consensus about dietary guidelines.

"It's a very large task to lower the amount of fat in school lunches, but it is a very critical area we need to be working on aggressively," said Patricia McGrath Morris, the director of research for Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a Washington-based advocacy group.

While there are no firm data available, many observers believe that school meals routinely derive more than 30 percent of their calories from fat--the maximum percentage for fat in the diet recommended by a number of scientific groups, including the National Cancer Institute, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and the National Academy of Science's food and nutrition board.

Many medical experts believe that individuals who consume more than 30 percent of their calories from fat may be increasing their risk of developing heart disease and cancer. Recent medical evidence suggests that poor eating and exercise patterns eshed during childhood may be linked with later heart disease.

The USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, while urging lower fat and salt consumption, have never recommended an absolute maximum amount or percentage. That may change later this month, when the two departments are slated to release a new jointly developed set of national dietary guidelines.

Last month, in another attempt to improve the nutritional quality of meals, the USDA announced that it would distribute, on a trial basis, hamburger patties having a fat content as low as 10 percent. Patties currently distributed by the department have an average fat content of between 20 percent and 22 percent.

Under the grants, the five districts were allowed to set their own goals for sodium and fat content, but meals had to have a minimum of 30 percent of their calories coming from fat.

Among the "possible recipe modifications" the USDA recommended were substituting low-fat dairy products for mayonnaise or sour cream, decreasing the amount of salt in baked goods, using more poultry and less beef, skinning poultry, and draining fat from browned ground beef.

"While many of the above examples may appear to be not much more than common sense, these are not, to our knowledge, widespread practices among the majority of school food service operations," a department summary of the program stated. "A major component of this project is to learn how successful food service operators can be in implementing these types of changes."

According to food-service directors participating in the project, many of the changes have met little resistance from either students or school workers.

Connie Hereford, a nutrition specialist for the Denver district, said altering recipes and food-preparation procedures have lowered the average percentage of calories derived from fat from between 37 percent and 42 percent last year to between 33 percent and 36 percent this year. The soontent of meals this fall is also lower by about 10 percent, she added.

Some of the changes in the Denver district have included omitting butter and margarine from vegetables, not serving butter with rolls, not greasing the pans before baking, and substituting nonfat yogurt for half the mayonnaise in the ranch salad-dressing recipe, Ms. Hereford said.

"Kids really like things plain," she said. "They don't even know it's not there."

In West Baton Rouge Parish, meanwhile, school officials have been focusing on improving the school-breakfast program.

Vivian Hughes Daspit, the district's food-service supervisor, said the biggest challenge has been modifying traditional breakfast preferences.

"Most people think they aren't eating breakfast unless they're eating meat," she said. To meet that preference while still reducing fat and sodium, she said, the district has substituted lower-fat meats, sausages, and cheeses into the morning meal.

Most observers said that food directors have to strike a delicate balance between providing nutritional meals and serving food that children are willing to eat.

"When you start making these changes, you are affecting the acceptability of this food to children," said Vivian Pilant, director of school-food services for the South Carolina education department and the chairman of the public-policy and legislative committee of the American School Food Service Association. "Most changes need to be made gradually."

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