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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Colorful fruits have been set out to tempt children as they make their lunchtime food choices at Sandy Elementary on May 14.

One day recently, adults dressed as a carrot, a banana and a poached egg walked into the cafeteria at East Midvale Elementary. Good food choices help you stay healthy, the grown-ups in the costumes told the children sitting at the lunch tables. The children broke into an impromptu chant — "We love bananas!" — and one of them gave the carrot a high-five.

What happened next underscores the challenge of school lunch.

Like many districts in Utah, Canyons School District is trying to teach children about nutrition and is making its lunches more healthful, so the menu that day included fresh blueberries and raw pepper slices. There were indeed good food choices, and there were children making them.

But there were also students who bypassed the fresh fruit and vegetable station and concentrated on the bags of chips that were also on the menu. Some students licked the whipped cream off their blueberries and spit the fruit out. At one table, a little boy unwrapped the sack lunch he brought from home, ate the ham, tossed the apple and proved that oh yes he can stuff an entire Ding Dong in his mouth. Most kids washed their food down with chocolate milk — except for the ones who brought lunch from home; they mostly drank fruit punch or soda pop.

School lunch in Utah — whether served by the school or brought from home — is a complicated affair, full of improvements and promise but also constrained by tight budgets, uninformed parents and picky eaters raised on sugar, fat and salt. School lunch is the moment where what the experts know about fueling young brains and bodies meets reality. Where "fresh food is better than processed" smacks up against "it's too expensive." Where "chocolate milk contains twice as much sugar as regular milk" runs headlong into "but it's what kids want."

Hang around in school lunchrooms in Utah and you'll be both encouraged and dismayed.

This spring, the reputation of school lunch took a beating.

"Too fat to fight," declared more than 100 retired military leaders last month about America's teens, citing high-calorie school lunches as one reason. "More likely to be overweight," reported researchers at the University of Michigan about middle school children who eat school lunch.

Then along came British TV chef Jamie Oliver and his "Food Revolution," which made high drama of efforts to change the school lunch program in a West Virginia town whose obesity and diabetes rates are among the highest in the nation.

School lunch has had a bad rap for decades, but recently America has discovered how pudgy it really is, so efforts have intensified to make changes. And the concern isn't just about weight, says Primary Children's Medical Center dietitian Pauline Williams. Food choices are tied directly to future risk of heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, blindness and certain cancers. And even small, subclinical micronutrient deficiencies can lead to poor classroom performance, says national nutrition expert John Berardi.

Utah is not in the vanguard of school lunch reform (that would be places like California where "Renegade Lunch Lady" Ann Cooper changed the Berkeley Unified School District's menus from processed cheese nachos to healthy meals made from scratch). But Utah isn't bringing up the rear, either.

If school lunch indeed contributes to obesity, evidence suggests Utah is doing something right, or at least less wrong. The National Survey of Children's Health data shows Utah's children are the least overweight in the nation: 23.1 percent, compared to 31.6 nationwide. Still, that's nearly one in four children who weigh more than is healthy.

All the blame for the extra pounds can't be placed on school lunch. There are the doughnuts and sugar-laden fruit drinks at the end of Saturday soccer games and the hours spent playing video games instead of riding bikes. There are the sugar cereals and the fast food burger that is cheaper than a pound of apples. Research suggests the most reliable predictor of obesity in the United States is poverty.

So school lunch isn't the only culprit, but it's a starting point for change.

One day last month, first grade teacher Christi Paulson stood in the lunch line at Riley Elementary in the Salt Lake School District and cringed at the selection: corn chips with a little scoop of chili, side dishes of corn and apple sauce, a small bag of cookies. Except for the chili, the lunch had a pale yellow cast.

"One of the reasons I became a teacher was to try to get kids to eat better," says Paulson, who is discouraged by the corn dogs and chocolate milk on the district's menus.

The Salt Lake district has made improvements — it hasn't used deep fat fryers in years, adds whole wheat to its hamburger buns and noodles, has a "Fresh Fruit and Vegetable" grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide a good snack twice a week in a dozen grade schools — but nutrition advocate Paulson and others aren't satisfied that the district is doing enough.

A group of parents from several east-side schools is visiting other districts to see what's possible, hoping to change the menu in Salt Lake. Their first foray was to Oak Hollow Elementary in Draper, where they watched lots of students take spinach and kiwi from the salad bar.

"I stood next to the trash," says parent Ashley Hoopes. "I would say 85 to 90 percent of the food was eaten." That's not true at her son's school, she says.

Hoopes is bothered that some districts, including Salt Lake, offer students an alternative "meal" containing sugary yogurt, cookies and carrots. "There's a day's worth of sugar in just that meal alone," she frets. She worries that students' blood sugar spikes and then falls later, while they're trying to learn.

Sugar content is not one of the elements the National School Lunch Program tracks in its nutritional recommendations.

The program was started at the end of World War II to use surplus crops and feed the nation's children, who didn't always have adequate nutrition. It's a permanent program that must still be reauthorized and fine-tuned every five years.

The Child Nutrition Act now making its way through Congress would give the Department of Agriculture authority to set national nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools — not just the entrée, as it does now, but the "competitive" pizza, the ?la carte chicken patties, the candy in the school store, the sodas in the vending machines. The bill would also fund school gardens and use local food; increase training for food service staff; ban trans fats; and raise what the government pays for each free lunch by 6 cents.

This year the USDA will also update federal nutrition standards, and it's expected to follow the recommendations of the federal Institute of Medicine, requiring dark green and orange vegetables (high in micronutrients) and legumes each week, with "limits on starchy vegetables."

Nothing on the menus stirs more debate than chocolate milk, a crowd pleaser that's chosen about five times as often as lower-calorie white milk.

Healthy-choice advocates hate that the popular pint has 24 grams of sugar, compared to 12 naturally occurring grams of sugar in regular milk.

"If we got chocolate milk out of the school system, it would be my career ultimate moment," says Riley teacher Paulson.

On the other side are lunch program administrators, local to national, who argue the need kids have for milk's calcium and vitamin D outweigh other considerations. They have no plans to dump it, although many Utah districts will serve the non-fat version next year.

Jordan District is particularly concerned about how little milk adolescent girls consume, says Jana Cruz, district food director. They have only so many years to build the calcium stockpile that will keep their bones healthy and their spines straight. "We feel like it's worth getting sugar to get the calcium. Hopefully, at some point we'll all be educated enough to want to drink white milk."

White milk demonstrates one of school lunch's greatest challenges: "Unless they eat it, it's not nutritious," Granite School District food services director Rich Prall says.

And unless they eat it, the lunch program won't have as many customers and lunch programs are also a business that needs to stay afloat. So when districts make changes to their menus they often try to "sneak" foods in, says Salt Lake nutrition director Kelly Orton, adding more whole wheat to the pasta, for example, or buying low-fat cheese. Other times they just make a bold move — switching to sweet potato fries, as Granite and others have done, adding edamame and veggie hummus wraps to its menus, as Park City did.

"We had so many people who said, 'Those kids won't eat that spinach salad,' " says Annette Richter, food coordinator in the Davis District. But the district stuck to its guns. Maybe by the time these grade schoolers are in junior high they'll demand more salads. But right now when lunch ladies at South Davis Junior High serve food for a school population of 980, they prepare just four salads.

Michelle Obama's Child Obesity Task Force recently reported that 90 percent of schools nationwide offer kids low-fat menu options, but in only about 20 percent did the average lunch selected meet standards for fat. That includes secondary schools, where students have more choices that currently aren't covered by federal nutrition guidelines.

How much can a school district fly in the face of children's tastes? When the Salt Lake District took away sugary cereals in its school breakfast program nine years ago, the children refused the alternative. "We keep trying," says Orton. Now they offer two unsweetened cereals, "but we only have a few students who take it."

Many school districts are trying to override taste buds trained to crave salt, sugar and fat by showcasing other food choices with fun facts, tantalizing pictures and samples you can bite into — including jicima and star fruit.

But most school districts also still make their entrees look like versions of fast food — and even though it might be a healthier version (nuggets and corn dogs breaded in whole wheat and baked not fried), the choices still send the message that the best food is fast food.

Studies show it can take up to 25 times of getting a child to try a food before he'll like it, says dietitian Williams, who has expertise in pediatric weight management.

"If you put apples, oranges, bananas and cookies out, most students would choose the cookies," she says. "But if you don't offer the cookies they'll eat the fruit and enjoy it. I say let's offer the healthy foods. They will eventually choose them."

Last year, Granite District served 91,000 pounds of chicken nuggets, Salt Lake nearly 50,000.

Processed foods like chicken nuggets and instant potatoes are cheaper to serve than meals made from scratch. "That's the reality of serving 50,000 lunches a day," says Prall. "You're not going to be peeling potatoes."

In fact, the cost of food preparation increases the more you handle the food, says Pam Tsakalos, director of nutrition for Davis. So does the chance of foodborne illnesses.

Davis' state-of-the-art "cook and chill" kitchen can produce 70,000 whole wheat bread sticks, bake 9,000 rolls an hour, simmer 900 gallons of chili, cook 800 pounds of roast in a single cook tank— all at the same time, with a staff of only 19 cooks. It's done from scratch, but much of the process is automated.

Money lurks at the heart of every challenge facing school lunch. Districts wrestle with the higher cost of nutritious foods, the federal government must decide if it can afford six cents more for every free lunch when the nation faces massive debt, and families packing lunch from home know chips are cheaper than fresh fruit.

The federal government reimburses all or part of the cost of school lunch. ($2.68 for every free lunch, $2.28 if it's a reduced-price subsidy, 24 cents when a family pays full price.) That federal contribution helps districts charge reasonable rates. In Utah, the range in public schools is $1.10 in Carbon and Ogden districts to $1.95 in Wayne District.

Districts leverage the federal commodities program to buy more food. The White House task force report notes "great improvements in the nutritional profile" of foods the UDSA gives to schools as commodities, with less fat, sodium and sugar "in many of its offerings."

In bygone days, a truck might pull up with a load of beans and the district had to deal with it. Now, says Davis' Tsakalos, districts can choose what they want from the offerings. Davis has chosen to put much more emphasis on getting fresh fruits and vegetables.

When Granite District began its fruit and vegetable "nutrition stations," food costs went up between 5 and 10 cents. But Prall says waste went down as more students ate what they picked for themselves.

And sometimes the savings come from simple solutions. When Davis District saw students taking a bite out of their apples and tossing them, they started slicing the apples. Same with the oranges. It's more kid-friendly, and kids are throwing less in the garbage.

TV chef Jamie Oliver spent all spring snubbing the chicken nuggets and pizza at schools in West Virginia, at one point equating processed food with crack cocaine. He favors school lunch made from scratch, using fresh ingredients.

But what, realistically, is possible? Oliver persuaded a local hospital to donate $80,000 to pay for cook training and better food. What happens in towns where the cameras aren't rolling and there isn't a celebrity chef to stir things up?

If you want to change your child's lunch program, go through your district, says Charlene Allert, assistant director of the State Office of Education's Child Nutrition Programs. It's at the district level where the menus are made and food ordered.

Ashley Hoopes and the other concerned parents in the Salt Lake District are doing their homework by visiting other lunch programs. They're looking into UCARE, a consortium of 15 districts that have banded together for better buying power.

Already in Utah there have been many positive changes: brown rice in Park City, low-fat ranch dressing made from yogurt in Davis, the Canyons' contract with Pizza Hut to create a pizza that's lower in fat.

But there can be more.

"Find the smallest change that has the biggest impact and start with that," suggests nutrition expert Berardi. Maybe that's changing a school menu to include only one dessert a week. Or eliminating high fructose corn syrup. Or having recess before lunch. Or, like some Wasatch Front schools, eliminating sugary birthday treats and classroom rewards like root beer float parties.

If you're packing a lunchbox at home, know that the small change with the biggest impact might start in your refrigerator. And with the lessons you teach your child about the foods that will keep him healthy.

As Rochelle Creager of Action for Healthy Kids Utah says: "We will never truly solve the childhood obesity epidemic by focusing solely on the schools — we need to look inside our own homes and take responsibility for that environment, as well."

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