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Nutrition standards revolutionize school lunches

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP)--Toasted Italian sub with roasted garlic sauce. Grilled chicken Caesar wrap with red onions and romaine. Wasabi beef stir fry.

A recent lunch menu for Holland Public Schools in Michigan sounds more like entrees from your favorite corner bistro than a school cafeteria.

Across the country the typical school lunch is changing as nutritionists and cooks head back to the kitchen to develop recipes that contain less fat, salt and sugar and more fruits and vegetables as part of a federal mandate tied to local funding for free and reduced-price lunches.

School nutritionists in West Virginia have been edging toward healthier food choices for years, but aren't offering anything nearly as exotic as Wasabi beef.

"I would love to be able to expand the offerings, but it's a regional thing," said Carolyn Barnett, school nutrition director for Berkeley County Schools in the Eastern Panhandle. "It depends on what your children would eat."

While students seemed to enjoy soft chicken tacos when they were introduced on the menu, Barnett said reviews were mixed for shepherd's pie, a layered casserole of beef, carrots, and potato.

"At a couple of schools, the kids loved it, but we had another that said, 'what are you trying to do to us?"' she said.

In Holland, Food Service Director Bernie Lane hired a chef to spice up the healthy offerings in its cafeterias with pretty good success. Students' lunch-line favorites now include chipotle chicken, ham-broccoli-potato casserole and sweet-and-sour chicken stir fry over long-grain rice.

"It's difficult to take pizza away from a kid, so we'd rather make it with less fat and more healthy," Lane said. "Whole wheat crust, vegetables, lean meat and low-fat cheese."

Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida is known for its homemade whole wheat, reduced fat cinnamon roll, but students are also fond of its modified recipes for macaroni and beef casserole, arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), and roast pork with black beans and rice, said registered dietitian Carol Chong.

In Alaska, the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District has joined with the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers to develop six child-approved recipes, including a Baja salad made with spicy cornmeal crusted fish strips served in a taco shell. Similar entrees are on school menus in Seattle and Houston.

St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota is known for its low-fat ultragrain wheat banana-chocolate chip bread.

Providing healthy food choices costs a little more, but most school nutritionists say they work within their budgets.

Barnett, the nutrition director in West Virginia, says she tries to balance the higher costs by using more federal commodities.

The federal government subsidized about $2.50 of the estimated $2.90 cost of each lunch served under the commodities program during the 2005-2006 school year, according to a study the USDA's Food & Nutrition Service released in April, but conducted before food costs spiked in 2008.

State and local officials have some latitude in setting standards for the school meal programs.

West Virginia, which has the second-highest childhood-obesity rate in the country at roughly 21 percent, adopted one of the more restrictive policies by setting limits on calories, fats, salt and sugar.

About 46 percent of districts participating in the survey indicated they did the same.

West Virginia is among the minority in also applying its standards to what parents can bring for holiday classroom parties and what cheerleaders and band members can sell at school to raise money. Roughly 35 percent of the districts surveyed nationwide said they impose similar restrictions.

Richard Goff, executive director of the West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition, said students don't seem to miss the cookies and candy.

"It's not the kids who are crying for cupcakes. It's the parents who are crying because they can't send cupcakes," he said.

Instead of cupcakes for classroom parties, parents are encouraged to bring low-fat yogurt smoothies, rice cakes with peanut butter, melon balls or vegetable sticks.

Goff said the state has been moving toward healthier nutrition after years of sending students mixed messages. After teaching children the importance of healthy eating habits in the classroom, students were unleashed into hallways packed with fat- and sugar-loaded vending-machine snacks. Schools were mindful of what was served in the lunchroom, but students "exited the cafeteria door we were turning a blind eye to what was being brought in the back door."

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