Food for thought: School chefs explain lunch program

May 2010 Posted in Your Health

By Kristine ThomasFrench fries are served three times a week at the Silverton High School and rarely at the elementary schools. Students are given a choice on what they eat, with every school offering a variety or salad bar.

Nita Kropf will shoulder some of the blame, but not all of it.

Unfortunately, Kropf said, many people believe school lunches are the culprit for the increase in childhood obesity in America.

“The lunch program is a good scapegoat,” said Kropf, who is the food services manager for the Silver Falls School District. “We give kids a choice on what they can get so I feel that should take some of the blame off us.”

According to a government study, more than 16 percent of American children aged 10 to 17 years were obese in 2007. Oregon had the lowest rate of obesity – defined as body mass index in the 95th percentile or above – at slightly below 10 percent or 1 in 10 kids.

Childhood obesity and school lunches were the focus in English chef Jamie Oliver’s television program, Food Revolution, which caused people to ponder what’s being served in their school cafeterias. Oliver’s goal is to convince school cooks to forego serving processed meals in favor of food made from scratch using fresh ingredients.

Kropf watched one episode, while cheering for the cooks. She said it wouldn’t be possible to make the switch.

The food service program has to stay on budget, meet the demands of its customers and serve food on time. Healthy food items cost more money and making meals from scratch would increase labor costs, Kropf said.

“This is the best food we can do in the amount of time and money we have,” Kropf said. “We start at 5:30 in the morning to prepare food for students. All the cooks take pride in their work and they all want what is the best for kids.”

Looking at what was served 25 years ago when she began working for the Silver Falls School District, Kropf said changes have been made to serve healthier food. She recalls making from-scratch desserts, cinnamon rolls, muffins, breads, pizza and hamburger buns.

Just as it does now, Kropf said 25 years ago the school district was purchasing ready-to- reheat meals.

Children were served graham crackers with frosting and butter sandwiches with their entree. Dessert was the hook to get kids to buy school lunch.

“The main difference between what we did then and now is we had more cooks in the kitchen than we do now,” she said.

Compared with 25 years ago, Kropf said, school lunches are healthier.

Soft drinks and candy have been eliminated from vending machines and whole wheat bread and tortillas and low-fat cheeses and meats are used to make entrees. At the variety bar, fresh fruits, vegetables and salad fixings are offered every day at all the schools. Low-fat or nonfat milk is served.

Pizza is made with a whole-wheat crust and French fries are offered three times a week at the high school and rarely at the elementary school. The French fries are baked, since the deep fat fryer was removed from the kitchen about two years ago.

At the high school, students are given three choices of entrees. On May 11, students could take items from the variety bar and select a corn dog, sweet-and-sour chicken with rice or a deli sandwich. They also could have French fries. High school students pay $2.65 for lunch. Elementary students have the choice of an entrée, deli sandwich or yogurt with granola.

Given her staff has to prepare meals for an average of 460 high school students a day, plus the entrée for the students at Mark Twain, Robert Frost and Eugene Field elementary schools; Kropf said it wouldn’t be feasible to make all the meals from scratch, adding spaghetti, soup, mashed potatoes and gravy with dinner rolls are made from scratch.

She said many people “have trouble with the fact we buy prepared meals.”

“What they have to understand is it would cost more in labor than the prepared meals if we were to make everything from scratch,” she said. “With the prepared meals, we come out ahead.”

Silver Falls School District Director of Fiscal Services Jan Hoffman said until the 2008-09 school year, the food service program either broke even or had small gains or losses. In 2008-09, the food service program lost more than a $25,000.

“This year, due to the meal price increase, staff reductions and some increase in participation as of March 31, the net operating profit was about $35,000,” Hoffman said.

Both Kropf and lunch cook Eileen Versteeg acknowledge many items served for school lunch are fast food.

They believe the increase in childhood obesity is caused by lack of physical activity and that many kids are being served fast food at home for dinner.

“Kids have less time in PE and many kids are going home to an empty house and eating heaven-only-knows out of the cupboard while watching TV, playing video games or being on the computer,” Versteeg said.

Believing it takes a village to raise a child, Versteeg said parents should look at what they are feeding their children and realize children learn by example.

“It needs to start at the home with parents teaching kids how to eat healthy,” Versteeg said. “I believe we need to be on board by providing healthy food for kids at lunch but I don’t believe we need to take the brunt of the blame for childhood obesity.”

Family and Consumer studies teacher Zelma Cannon believes it is possible to serve healthy meals on budget. Her students in her Culinary Arts Academy prepare and serve an average of 30 lunches a day at the Fox Shop, including recently a barbecue chicken sandwich and chicken Cesar salad, both sold for $1.75.

“If the students can prepare healthy meals, others can,” she said. “I think with a new frame of mind and attitude, it can be done. I believe we should be offering healthy items for our students to choose from.”

Unlike the cafeteria, the food prepared by students has to meet strict state nutrition guidelines, Cannon said.  “Our snacks can be only 200 calories and our entrees have 350 calories, plus they have to meet fat, sugar and salt guidelines.”

She doesn’t buy the notion kids won’t eat healthy food if it is offered. When her students prepared minestrone soup, she was told no one would buy it. It sold out. Spinach is a “secret” ingredient in many entrees and students are learning to convert recipes to meet healthy guidelines, she said, adding for example, removing oil and adding applesauce to make muffins moist.

Health and PE teacher Marie Traeger said students are taught about nutrition their freshman and junior years. “We talk about what they should be eating from the food groups and ask them to write down what they ate for five days,” she said. “We don’t talk about weight but instead how food makes them feel.”

She has seen a change in school lunches, including “a really nice salad bar.” There still is the prepackaged food like the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“We have a long way to go but we have made changes and students have better choices on what they can eat,” she said.

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