Published Online: April 2, 1997


Dietary Guides Spur Rewrite of School Menus

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Laurel, Md.

Students who filed through the squeaky-clean cafeteria at Scotchtown Hills Elementary School last week had a choice of baked--never fried--chicken nuggets and potatoes, a deli sandwich on a wheat bun, an array of fresh and colorful fruits and vegetables, and a low-fat dessert.

The healthy, but appealing, menu reflects the rush on the part of food-service directors nationwide to meet new federal nutrition guidelines.

In the process, they are replacing cafeteria classics like sloppy Joe, hot dogs, and pepperoni pizza with fresher, more nutritious alternatives.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture drew up the new dietary guidelines in 1993 based on the government's new food pyramid, which features more fruits, vegetables, and grains and fewer meat and dairy products.

The USDA guidelines require that school menus receive no more than 30 percent of their total calories from fat. They also specify the amount of calories, carbohydrates, protein, calcium, iron, vitamins A and C, and fiber that food plans must include over the course of a week's meals.

"These are the most significant changes in school lunches and breakfasts in 50 years," said Shanna Duncan, a consultant for the USDA's Team Nutrition, which is helping educate the public about the changes.

"The emphasis is on nutrition, rather than calories," she said.

More than 25 million children are served school meals each year.

Ms. Duncan said the school lunch guidelines were revised after a 1992 USDA study found that 38 percent of school lunch calories on average came from fat, and school-age children were eating far fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended.

In 1993, she said, less than 1 percent of all school food programs met the new dietary guidelines. By the 1998-99 school year, all schools participating in the lunch program are required to have the new guidelines in place. About half are complying now.

To help train food-service employees, the USDA devised a new cookbook, A Toolkit for Healthy School Meals.

The book and an accompanying training video were developed by a network of USDA officials, top chefs, and registered dietitians to help school workers incorporate the new recipes into their food programs.

The book also is meant to help food-service workers entice students to try what initially may be unfamiliar--and suspiciously healthful--food.

Dishes like tabouleh, broccoli salad, and even no-fat, prune-pur‚e brownies are featured prominently in the cookbook.

So are recipes for several new, lower-fat versions of old standbys: oatmeal cookies, tacos, macaroni and cheese, and, in a nod to cafeterias of yore, a tuna-and-noodle casserole.

Slow Change

Food-service workers who have adopted the food guidelines have generally taken a slow-but-steady approach to menu changes. After all, they say, nutritious school meals mean nothing if students don't eat them.

"We've made some real strides. The food we offer is healthful, it looks better, and the kids really like it," said Jill Turner, the manager of the food program at Scotchtown Hills, which serves 630 students in the Prince George's County, Md., district.

Although the county has its own rigorous nutrition guidelines in place in many of its schools, Ms. Turner said, the USDA program has introduced more menu options and given her staff members new ideas about how to make healthy meals appealing to students.

"Our job is to provide kids with food that looks like fast food but is nutritious at the same time," she said.

"We break the kids in slowly," Ms. Turner added. Vegetarian chili, for example, will be passed around in sample-size cups for children to try, as part of a Southwestern-foods demonstration, before it stars on the school menu. And there will always be several menu options available for students to choose from, so they can build meals based on their own tastes.

New Technical Skill

The federal school lunch program began in 1946, after military doctors noticed that young men recruited to serve in World War II were poorly nourished. Its broad goal over the years has been to make sure children eat at least one solid, balanced meal a day.

But food-service workers say the new nutrition guidelines have changed the everyday demands of the job, requiring that employees have a more specialized knowledge of food-science principles and a better understanding of consumer behavior.

"Food is a business and science, and good training is more important than ever," said Dorothy Caldwell, the director of child nutrition for the Arkansas education department, whose schools are working to implement the USDA guidelines.

Ms. Caldwell said her department is encouraging districts to step up their qualifications for employees and hire managers who are registered dietitians "with good management skills and an appreciation for healthy eating."

Added George L. Bibbons, the director of food services for the Prince George's County schools: "We do most of the technical nutritional analysis at the central office, but food staffs today have to have an understanding of the principles, and they have to know what kids like."

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