Schools try to get kids eating fruits and veggies, eliminate meat on Mondays

Published: Monday, Oct. 24 2011 7:49 p.m. MDT

Girls get fresh vegetables for salads during lunch. Students at Monroe Elementary in West Valley eat a meatless lunch Monday, Oct. 24, 2011.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — Of the seven school lunch entrees students in the Granite School District could choose from on any given Monday this month, none of them included meat.

In an effort to promote and increase student consumption of vegetables and fruit, the district instituted "Meatless Mondays" for the month by eliminating all poultry, fish and meat from the district's schools one day a week.

"It was just something to broaden the scope," said Jeff Gratton, director of operations for the district's food services. "Getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables … that's our biggest hurdle."

District officials hoped to show children that healthful meals can take on a variety of appearances. They tried to adapt meals such as lasagna and burritos, which the district already serves, by either eliminating beef or substituting beans instead.

"Every item except for a couple were already in our rotation," Gratton said.

For the most part, reaction to the trial program has been positive from students and parents. But it's a challenge to satisfy the tastes of all students, particularly picky elementary school eaters.

"My sixth-grade daughter is the only one who has really made comments," said RaAnn Foote, whose children attend Cottonwood High, Bonneville Junior High and Arcadia Elementary. "She can't stand it."

Foote's daughter has been making a turkey sandwich to bring to school the past couple of Mondays.

Foote said she wasn't initially aware of why the district was experimenting with school lunch, but once she learned about it, she thought it made some sense.

"It didn't make me upset. I was curious about it," she said. "After they explained it, I understood better."

It's actually a program taking place in homes nationwide with a website dedicated to providing recipes and tips. According to the site, Meatless Mondays are as much about reducing impacts on the environment as they are about improving health, but that didn't factor into Granite's decision to give it a try.

Gratton said the program is not about converting kids to a vegetarian diet or about reducing costs. It's about promoting healthful behaviors and helping students increase their intake of whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables.

But parent Tiffani Leavitt of West Valley City said the program may have confused some children about what it means to be healthy. Lunches and dinners in the Leavitt home include a small amount of meat — usually poultry — so to have that eliminated from school lunches makes it seem like meat and healthful meals are mutually exclusive.

"I've always taught them moderation in all things," Leavitt said. "They think there's something missing from their meals (at school)."

She said her children weren't unhappy with the no-meat alternatives, but they didn't like that the choice was taken away from them.

Jacob Schmidt, a registered dietician with the Utah Beef Council, said schools should focus on portion sizes, not eliminating meat completely. The average adult is recommended to have about 5.5 ounces a day. Three ounces is about the size of a deck of cards.

"Meat is part of your diet, including the fruits and vegetables," Schmidt said. "Our concern would be just that children and adults would miss out on the nutrients that you get out of meat."

When the program has run its course, finishing up on Monday, the district will review its success, based on whether there was a decrease in meals purchased on Mondays in October. If there was a significant drop off, district officials say they likely won't continue it. But if numbers held steady, the district might explore pursuing it in the future.

Gratton said regardless of whether they continue the program, students will always have access to fruits and vegetables daily in addition to protein-rich foods. Salad bars at schools feature both fresh and canned fruits and vegetables, and kids can get those as sides in addition to their meat.

"There's always a choice," he said.

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com, Twitter: mollyfarmer

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