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More fruits and vegetables appearing in school lunches

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The new school gardens and hoop houses in Lyon County schools not only serve as ways to offer more hands-on science and health lessons, but also offer a way for students to taste fresh vegetables and fruits they may not have tried before. Pictured here, children in Silver Springs, Nevada sample some of the garden and hoop house harvest during summer 2011. Photo by Wendy Madson

This month you’ll see renewed national focus on one of the hottest topics in child nutrition: the quality of public school lunches. For the first time in over 15 years, the nutrition standards for school lunches have been raised. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described the coming changes and said the new standards give the nation an opportunity “to improve the quality and quantity of the school meal programs.” Since U.S. children consume up to 50% of their daily calories while they’re at school, these changes could have significant impacts on children’s health.

Starting next year, students will see larger portions of fruits and vegetables on their lunch trays, more whole grains and fewer high calorie foods. French fries and pizza are still on the menu, but fries might now be baked and contain less salt while pizzas might be made with whole grain crusts and toppings with more vegetables.

School districts across the country are revamping their menus to serve meals that kids will like that also meet the new requirements for more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and lower sodium, saturated (animal) fat and sugar.

Lyon County Schools Alert to Changes: Lyon County schools have already made improvements, and are working to quickly implement the new standards. Last year, the schools partnered with the nonprofit Healthy Communities Coalition to survey students about their menu preferences, and to document which foods the students chose most often, and which they threw out most often. Last year key Lyon Schools staff toured other districts’ lunchrooms to learn more about healthy food menus that have proven popular with both staff and students. They’ve also met with Nevada Department of Education Child Nutrition and School Health experts and have been carefully following the development of the new standards for school lunches over the last few years.

New School Gardens Create Adventurous Eaters: One challenge for schools is developing menus that are healthy and affordable, but that students will also enjoy eating. The modern palate is often used to high salt, fat, and sugar, and students may shy away from fruits and vegetables and recipes they’re unfamiliar with at first. This is where school gardens come in. Healthy Communities Coalition, a local nonprofit, partnered with the schools to implement 5 new school gardens and 2 hoop houses in Silver Springs and Dayton last year, and expects to help fund 2 school gardens in Yerington and several more school hoop houses in the region by the end of this year with USDA funding.

Students have been involved in every aspect of the gardens, from digging up rocks to adding soil amendments to weeding, and have used the harvest to make healthy dishes like garlic potato soup and to donate to local food pantries. High school students have been trained as interns to help maintain and expand the gardens. All of this “ hands –on”  learning and work in the gardens has given the students chances to grow and then taste foods they may not have been familiar with, like kale and squash, and to learn how to make healthy dishes with vegetables they’ve grown themselves. All of this increases the chances that when they see more vegetables and fruits on their plates at school, they’ll give them a try.

Overview of New School Lunch Standards: New standards for other foods such those served in vending machines and school stores will come later. Changes for breakfast menus will be phased in more slowly.

The new standards for school lunches will require schools to serve larger portions of fruits and vegetables every day at lunch as well as leafy green vegetables, red-orange vegetables, and legumes weekly. No trans fats foods will be allowed. Within 2 years, all breads, cereals and pastas will be whole grain, and requirements for lower sodium will be slowly implemented over the next 10 years.

Costs and Long Term Benefits: Schools will get an additional 6 cents per lunch from government funding to meet the new standards. By the time all the new standards are fully implemented, the cost for the healthier lunch will be about 11 cents more, and the cost of the healthier breakfast menu will be about 28 cents higher. If the new standards for school lunches result in a reduction in the high national rate of diabetes, cancer, liver and heart disease, the small increase in cost will be well worth the investment.

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