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School Lunches Get A Healthy Twist For New School Year

School is back in session for more than 2.5 million public school students in Florida. And there are big changes in the way schools are going about feeding them. The menu calls for healthier lunches and more fruits and vegetables, but whether the kids will eat them and whether schools can afford the healthier food, is another matter.  

It’s lunch time at Tallahassee’s Cobb Middle School and sixth grader Jesse Lowe is chowing down on a Chick-Fil-A sandwich and an ice cream bar that he bought from the school. He admits, it’s not exactly the world’s healthiest lunch.

“They’re mostly serving fattening foods here, obviously, like what I’m eating, but we need more fruits I think,” He says. “They’re serving peaches, but I haven’t seen tons of people grabbing those.”

Jesse says most days, he usually goes for the school’s food and says his favorite meals are the chicken wraps. But the Pizza is pretty good too. “It actually tastes kind of like Domino’s.” 

That pizza has gone through a bit of an overhaul this year along with other traditional lunch stables after the federal government handed down new rules for what can and can’t be served to kids in the federally-backed school lunch program. Whole milk has been replaced by fat-free and reduced fat options, and students are required to take either a fruit or vegetable during lunch. Portion sizes will also be smaller, and pastas and breads will have to be made from whole grains.  That pizza now comes on a whole wheat crust.

“We’re using pure’d sweet potatoes as part of the pizza sauce as part of the orange vegetable requirement. And it’s still within what they like. So now you have your red sauce with a sweet potato puree, you’re within your guidelines, and it’s something that the kids like,” says Chef Anthony Terrell.

The Leon County School District brought him in as a consultant to help craft healthier meals. There are baked chicken fingers instead of fried ones and brightly colored salads with feta cheese, instead of cheddar.

Healthier meals don’t have to spell the end of traditional lunch stables like pizza and French fries. The state is trying to encourage kids to eat their fruits and vegetables and not throw them away.  That may be much easier than what some state officials think. The lunch changes are part of a national push for healthier eating and living and Cobb Middle School eighth grader Sydni Jones says she supports the changes because, “some people who are overweight can’t lose the weight they need too, they want to or the doctor wants them too. So if they lose the weight it’s because of the schools and themselves helping. And America has a lot of diabetes here so it may be better for everybody.”  

But Sydni adds that she’s not completely enthused with some of the district’s vegetable choices.

“I mean, I don’t like okra, but a lot of people do like okra, so I guess that’s nice because everyone likes different stuff. So if somebody likes okra, they can eat okra.”

But if students don’t want it, they don’t have to eat it.

“If you opt not to eat something on your plate and it’s in a container of some sort, you can take it to a share table and leave it for someone else,” says Robin Safely with the Florida Department of Agriculture. She oversees the state school lunch program. Safely says introducing things like a vegetable of the week and a “sharing table” helps minimize waste. And districts across the state are literally pinching pennies to be able to afford the new rules. 

“Our whole wheat products are more expensive. Brown rice is more expensive than white rice. And these changes are going to cost us money,” said Cathy Reed, who oversee school lunches for the Leon County School District.  

Reed says all those fresh fruits and vegetables and whole wheat pasta noodles is pricey. School districts are eligible for a six-cent-per meal increase in federal funding once they’ve gotten their menus approved by state officials. But Reed says that doesn’t go very far in making up for what districts are spending just to comply with the rules.

“When you think that I’m going to get 6-cents more per meal, but it’s going to cost me up to 25-cents more for that additional vegetable of piece of fruit…it doesn’t add up.”  

To help control costs, the district has joined up with several other school districts to increase their purchasing power. They’ve also turned to local growers to provide the produce. And those are things that the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Robin Safely encourages.

“If we can marry up our farmers with our school system, and the bulk that schools buy, we can hopefully push down the price of that product and get more of that Florida grown product into schools and lower the costs,” she said.

Safely and Leon County’s Cathy Reed say they believe the changes to the lunch program are positive. But in the short term Reed says going to be expensive until they can get more retailers in the supply chain to get on board. 

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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