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Eat your veggies! Schools offering more fruits, vegetables

Karen Fincher cuts fresh oranges for lunch at Liberty Middle. School food workers say that students enjoy most mandarin oranges, bananas and white potato products, but they don't like green peas or turnip greens.

Karen Fincher cuts fresh oranges for lunch at Liberty Middle. School food workers say that students enjoy most mandarin oranges, bananas and white potato products, but they don't like green peas or turnip greens.

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Donna Lee, a school food preparation worker at Liberty Middle School, puts crackers in the tray before closing up these fresh strawberry grilled chicken salads. New federal laws are requiring schools to offer more fruits and vegetables and lower-calorie foods to students this year. Newton County Schools chose to serve romaine lettuce as its only lettuce choice to aid in the changes. Staff Photos: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith

COVINGTON -- The school cafeteria staff knows that students don't like green peas and turnip greens, but school officials still are trying to get them to eat more vegetables and fruits.

Now federal guidelines require more servings for students, no matter what the cost.

Newton County schools, like schools across the country, now are required to serve larger portions of fruits and vegetables. They must offer dark green vegetables, orange or red vegetables and legumes at least once a week, eliminate all added trans-fat and serve only 1 percent or nonfat milk under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new standards.

Jan Loomans, director of Operational Services for the Newton County School System, said elementary school students now receive half a cup of fruits and vegetables, instead of of a cup. Instead of half a cup for high schoolers, they may now take up to 1 cup of fruit and 1 cup of vegetables.

In addition to more offerings of fruits and vegetables, calories for all grade levels were reduced under the new regulations.

Previously, kindergarten through sixth-grade students could get 664 calories, while seventh through 12th grades could get 825. Now, kindergarten through fifth grades can receive 550 to 650, middle schoolers 600 to 700 and high schoolers 750 to 850.

Loomans said romaine lettuce is now the only kind of lettuce offered, instead of a head of lettuce and romaine mix, like previously offered.

"We felt (it) did not provide significant nutrients," she said.

Also this year, students will get a choice of sweet potato tots and fries that are partially fried by the manufacturer and then baked at the school.

"While they still contain fat, it is less fat than they would have if they were fully fried," Loomans said.

Other new options this year include beef teriyaki nuggets, chicken Alfredo over whole grain noodles, barbecue chicken quesadilla and buffalo cheese crunchers. Schools also offer seasonally available fresh fruits, like recently when plums and nectarines were served to students, Loomans said.

"We decided to keep the changes low key in hopes that the students would not notice any changes in the meals," she said. "We have always served the best quality food that we can afford and plan to continue to do this."

Loomans said that students' favorite fruits and vegetables appear to be mandarin oranges, bananas, corn, white potato products and side salads. She said students do eat some sweet potato products, but it hasn't been their favorite, and they especially don't like green peas and turnip greens.

"We will continue to search for new fruits and vegetables as new products become available and affordable," Loomans said.

She said she won't know the impact of the changes until the end of September.

"I hope that we will continue to have the high participation that we currently have," she said, adding that the average lunch participation is 81.5 percent and breakfast is 37.7 percent. "All new products are taste tested by the students."

Loomans said the budget impact is currently unknown, but she anticipates food costs to increase because of the changes.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.