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School Year to Kick Off with 'All Star Lunch Program'

New program teaches Fairfax County students about healthy eating

Lower calorie counts, reduced sodium and saturated fats, and more fruits and vegetables are some of the changes Fairfax County Public Schools students will find when they return to school next month.

The system's changes to its school lunch program come with new federal nutrition standards being implemented this fall in schools across the country, the largest reform of national lunch and breakfast programs in 15 years.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, part of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign, also includes changes to school breakfast programs during the 2013-2014 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Fairfax, part of the changes include an "All Star Lunch" program, designed by the system's Office of Food and Nutrition Services to teach elementary school students about the five components of a healthy lunch, as defined by the standards: protein, grains, milk, fruits and vegetables.

As they go through the lunch line at their schools, students who buy lunch will select three, four or five of these stars to put together a full meal; they'll also be required to select a serving of fruit or vegetables, which in some cases will be provided to the school through the Virginia Farm to School program or individual school gardens.

"The options in the '5 Star' make it easier for children in elementary schools to understand the new guidelines and how to balance a meal," said JoAnne Hammermaster of Vienna, a founding member of Real Food for Kids, a countywide group that has advocated for healthier school lunches. "If the different components are indicated on the lunch lines, then the students will get a fun visual to assist them in their choices."

Other changes, according to the USDA, include:

  • Reducing calories and tailoring protein portions — both meat and meat alternatives — based on the age and grade level (K through 5) of the student 
  • Morewhole grain-rich breads and cereals.
  • Offering only fat-free flavored or unflavored milk or 1 percent unflavored milk.
  • Serving foods with reduced saturated fats and sodium and no trans fats.

Registered dieticians and chefs have been creating new school meals to meet the requirements, and also students'preferences, which the system tracks thorugh "monthly student taste parties," the system said in a statement.

"There has been an 80 percent reduction in the number of additives and preservatives in school meals," a change prompted largely by parent feedback, it said.

Hammermaster said the group "would be very enthusiastic" about a true Farm to School program, in which the county purchases, when possible, seasonal produce directly from local farmers.

"We believe there is a lot of opportunity for fun programs with the local farmers to help teach kids about where their food comes from, why fresh fruits and vegetables are healthier, sample a variety of fruits and vegetables, and learn about seasonal produce. This type of program can work well with school gardens, which are an excellent way to incorporate learning opportunities about food and tying it back into classroom subjects," she said.

Vienna Elementary School broke ground on a community garden last spring. Oak Hill and Providence Elementary schools also have gardens, and a number recieved seed or seed money last year.

The program is not the last of the changes coming to the system later this year, School Board member Ryan McElveen (At-large) said.

The board set aside money from FNS earlier this year to fund a fresh food kitchen program at Marshall High School, beginning in 2013.

The board also authorized a system-wide study of "how we can provide fresher, healthier food options for our students."

A selection advisory committee is in the process of selecting a consultant; menus and equipment are being selected for Marshall's pilot, McElveen said. 

McElveen hopes the pilot can be used "as a guide for future endeavors, potentially at schools around the county."

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chris guerre August 24, 2012 at 12:52 AM
Until mandated by federal regulations this coming year, did you know students could go through weeks, months, or the whole year without ever taking a fruit or vegetable as part of their "official" school lunch? The slight improvement being made this year is only the minimum required by law. And still, students in grades K-8 in FCPS, are allowed to refuse 2 out of the 5 meal components offered to them?! Meaning, even the youngest of students might not try a healthier component of the lunch. This policy is optional under USDA regulations, yet knowingly applied by FCPS. The FCPS "Farm to School" program is virtually nonexistent and any claims that students are eating healthier, out of their own school gardens, is complete exaggeration and only a PR tactic. The coming year's menu will surely still be highlighted by highly processed and refined foods, convenience-store quality frozen pizza, and a la carte offerings (at the higher grade levels) of ice cream, Powerade, and snack food in a bag. We can and should do better. And oh, there is at least one significant federal regulation under the 2010 HHFKA, that went into effect LAST school year...that FCPS FNS is still not in compliance with.
chris guerre August 24, 2012 at 02:24 AM
In specific, FCPS FNS is not (and has not been for an entire school year) in compliance with section 206 of the HHFKA. You can find the specifics in the link provided by Erica in the article above.
Amelie Krikorian August 24, 2012 at 03:10 AM
Even if you force the kids to put it on their tray there is no way to get them to eat it. The end result will be higher lunch prices and more waste.
chris guerre August 24, 2012 at 05:17 AM
So are you in favor of letting kids take a nap during algebra class or opting out of biology because there is "no way" to get them to participate in something they inherently might not be crazy about?! Actually, our teachers and administrators are charged with making the "uninteresting" ....interesting for our students; making the challenges of academics and personal growth... achievable, relevant, and worthy of their attention; and engaging them... in the pursuit of knowledge and well-being. Why should their time spent in the cafeteria be subject to defeatism?
Groovis Maximus August 24, 2012 at 01:47 PM
Section 206 defines "non-program" foods (i.e., foods that are not part of a reimburseable meal or a la carte foods), states that revenues from sales of non-program foods should accrue to the food service account, and states that revenues from the sale of a la carte foods should not revenues from sales of reimburseable meals. So what part do you believe the FCPS FNS is not in compliance with?
Groovis Maximus August 24, 2012 at 01:48 PM
oops, "revenues from the sale of a la carte foods should not EXCEED revenues from the sales of reimburseable meals"
Groovis Maximus August 24, 2012 at 02:13 PM
"Offer versus Serve" was adopted by Congress back in the mid-1970s as an option for high school students as a way to reduce plate waste. It worked so well that it was extended to all schools in the early 1980's. Offer versus serve allows students to refuse up to 2 items in a school lunch and 1 item of a school breakfast that they do not intend to eat. So - if a child will definitely not drink the milk, for example, they are not required to take it. Almost all school districts in the United States have adopted Offer versus Serve - it is not unique to FCPS. The school meals programs in school districts are run as non-profit businesses - very few of them receive additional funding from State or local educational agencies. So they have to make smart business choices - which is why they almost all choose to allow offer versus serve. The National School Lunch program serves about 32 million students per school day - over 1/2 of them low-income. Much of the program is designed specifically to address the needs of low-income students and to provide assistance to low-income school districts. Over the last few years, Congress authorized the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program which provides funds for school districts to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks for low-income schools. I believe some elementary schools in Fairfax county are participating in that program.
chris guerre August 24, 2012 at 04:48 PM
Section 206 of the HHFKA was written into law because nationwide studies found...despite popular belief...that many school districts were actually subsidizing their "nonprogram" (a la carte foods, vending, and anything else other than the official school lunch) food purchases with federal funds. Beginning last school year, under the new law, all school districts participating in the USDA's NSLP were required to be in compliance, showing that they were earning at least (or not losing more than) the same amount of revenue, or more, from their nonprogram food sales vs.their program (the official school lunch) food sales. FCPS FNS has not shown to be in compliance and has of yet, not even been been keeping the cost and revenue calculations required under law.
Amelie Krikorian August 24, 2012 at 09:46 PM
Teachers get twenty minutes for lunch as it is. Are you suggesting we give up our lunch to supervise thirty students and make sure they eat their vegetables? If their parents don't require it at home, this is a losing battle in any case because what repercussions can we offer if they don't? At least in class, if they fail, they repeat.
Kathy Keith August 24, 2012 at 11:54 PM
I've had two memorable experiences with being "forced" to eat school lunch. First, when I was in first grade I "chose" green beans. They were my favorite vegetable (seriously). However, on this day, the beans were burned and tasted terrible. I went to my dessert. A second grade teacher (not my sweet first grade teacher) came up to me and told me to put down my dessert and eat the beans. I was scared. As soon as she was out of sight I put up my tray and went out to recess. I refused to eat green beans for years. Years later, when I was a new first grade teacher, my principal had a policy that teachers would make every child "tase" everything on their tray. (Most of my students were on free lunch.) I asked on child to please taste his spinach. He did. Then he proceeded to throw up on his tray. I never enforced that rule again. Both of these are true stories.
chris guerre August 25, 2012 at 01:00 AM
"Offer vs. Serve" is mandated, by law, for all students grades 9 - 12 across the nation. It is optional in grades K - 8. Why not serve these youngest children healthy, tasty fruits and vegetables as part of their lunch and give them a complete, first-class meal that will entice their taste buds and help them discover new foods?.?.? If they are always allowed to reject foods they "think they don't like" they will never be exposed to new tastes. In FCPS, until this year, children could take a slice of cheese pizza and a chocolate milk...and this would qualify as an official school lunch. We need to stop measuring the success of the school food programs in terms of financial success and make a commitment to introducing children to new healthy foods, even if it means some children won't eat the healthiest options. If we don't try...there is zero chance they will ever eat the healthiest options.
chris guerre August 25, 2012 at 02:08 AM
No, don't worry, you don't have to do anything if you don't want to. It will take vision, relentless commitment, and a desire to make it happen...by those who care to make it happen. And a realization by the school system, that the lunchroom/cafeteria/food services should be held to the same educational philosophy embraced during every other minute of the school day.
chris guerre August 25, 2012 at 02:15 AM
OK, so here are my two memorable experiences. I've been in a low/middle income elementary school when every student was given a spinach and radish salad with their lunch. Students were asking for seconds and by the end of the lunch period for the 5th/6th graders, they were pounding their fists on the lunch tables and chanting "radishes, radishes." On another visit to an elementary school lunchroom, I handed out vegetables and salads to nearly every student...and many of the students had never even seen a tomato before. We served salads and red tomatoes, but also purple carrots, green tomatoes, white radishes, and concord grapes (which of course, no student had ever seen or tasted before). Students came back for seconds and thirds.
Groovis Maximus August 27, 2012 at 04:09 PM
Your vision of how school lunch "should" be is great. But school lunch is, in fact, a huge business and most school systems don't want to allocate precious education funds to subsidize school lunch. So most school lunches have to be made (including the costs of labor, overhead, etc) for about $2.78 per meal. We know from research that labor takes about 1/2 of that funding and the overhead charged by the school district takes another percentage - leaving less than 1/2 of the $2.78 available for food purchases. Hence the reason that schools don't want to waste any more food than necessary (i.e., why almost every school in the country has implemented offer versus serve). There are wonderful examples of what you are describing out there in the US. Grant county, WV has a wonderful school breakfast and lunch program where everything is made from scratch including breads and soups. But....they have only 5 or 6 schools, all the schools have full kitchens, and the number of kids served in the whole county is less than 2,000. Most of the great examples are small school districts. Fairfax County has some huge challenges in the school feeding department - i.e., the number of kids served every day, the fact that a huge proportion are low-income, most kitchens in schools are warming kitchens only, etc. I'm not saying that FCPS school lunch can't be improved - of course it can. However, it seems like the constant finger-pointing is not productive.
Laura Goyer August 28, 2012 at 03:45 PM
The American Academy of Pediatrics (and others) have conducted many studies of children that conclude the average child may need to see a new food on their plate at least 10 times before they will eat it!  Fear of new foods is common in children, and new foods should not be forced on a child. Many exposures are needed before a child will be brave enough to taste a new food. Continuing to offer new foods will help increase the likelihood that children will eventually taste and maybe even like a new food. The taste rule -- "You have to at least taste each food on your plate" -- may work on some but certainly not all children. Lots of variety, healthful fresh foods that taste yummy will be enough to get the adventurous eaters to try new things. Kids are naturally curious, school lunch provides a potential for exploration and learning that I feel we are obligated to provide. Food preferences change with time, and just because Sally didn't like carrots the first time she tried them doesn't mean she will not like them later on. Initially food waste may increase, but, over time I think we would be helping a generation of children to improve their diets.
Melanie Meren September 04, 2012 at 11:55 PM
While it's absolutely wonderful to see FCPS taking on more healthful options, let us remember that it is not solely the school's role to teach kids about food - appreciation for food and nutrition starts at home. I agree with Laura Goyer's excellent point just above - it takes trial and error for kids to learn about nutrition and how to eat. Eating is an education. And I agree with Hammermaster promotes in the article - a Farm to School approach where kids actually learn about the genesis of their foods. This kind of learning is certainly schools can help more with - and make it fun and engaging to teach kids about healthy living.

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