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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 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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