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Food Fights


If your image of a typical school lunch includes pizza drowning in high-fat cheese or a leathery slice of mystery meat, think again. More and more school districts in Central New York are pushing fruits, vegetables and other healthy choices in hopes of stemming the rise in childhood obesity and improving lifelong eating habits.

During the past two months, Family Times visited three area public school districts promoting healthy eating in the cafeteria.

One, West Genesee, has joined a growing list of districts that only use whole-wheat bread in their pizza crusts and hamburger rolls. “The students have complained about it, without a doubt,” says Debra Chynoweth, the food-service director in this western Onondaga County district.

Another district, Hannibal, takes advantage of locally grown produce from neighboring farmers in and around Oswego County. State lawmakers have recognized administrator Debbie Richardson and her team of food-service workers for their “Farm to School” efforts, which support the local economy and encourage healthy eating.

In Skaneateles, students benefit from a food-service program that offers plenty of homemade cooking and fun things to try, such as Chinese-style food in a takeout container. “You can never get stale,” says Elaine Crysler, the Skaneateles school lunch manager.

Providing healthy choices is challenging because food-service administrators must be mindful of cost. Lunch programs in public schools are break-even operations. Districts get money from the state and federal government based on how many students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The remaining revenue comes largely from sales.

The numbers vary from district to district. In West Genesee, elementary students pay $1.75 a day for lunch, and roughly 25 percent of that revenue comes from government reimbursements. In Hannibal, elementary students pay $1.55 for lunch, with 59 percent of the total subsidized by the government. In Skaneateles, children pay $2.15 a day, and about 13 percent of the budget comes from the government.

Despite the financial limitations, food-service administrators say they will never give up trying to get children to eat better—and in moderation. “We are far from perfect,” says Richardson, of Hannibal, “but we keep striving.”

Whole Wheat Hurdles
Tristan Brown, a second-grader at Onondaga Road Elementary School, wolfed down the first few bites of his cheeseburger on a recent school day without thinking about the whole-wheat bun.

Whole-wheat bread is par for the course in the West Genesee School District, where students who want favorites such as hamburgers, chicken patty sandwiches, pizza and grilled cheese have no other choice. Debra Chynoweth, the food service director, notes the obvious benefits. Whole-wheat bread is loaded with vitamins, fiber, protein and antioxidants. White bread lacks most of these ingredients.

Last year, when Chynoweth first made the switch, students complained about the dark-brown bread a lot, chucking heaps of it in the trash. This year, with their taste buds acclimated, students seem to be throwing less of it away. In October, an informal survey of an elementary hot-lunch line found most children perfectly content with their whole-wheat hamburger buns.

“It tastes good,” said Tristan, nodding his head and taking another bite of his cheeseburger.

Change is tough. Elementary children often need to be exposed to a new food over and over again before they decide they actually like it. That’s why most food-service directors in Central New York push for healthy changes at the elementary level before broadening their efforts to secondary students, who are more vocal about their tastes and have more control over what they buy.

“I just keep putting it out there, putting it out there, and putting it out there—and hoping that, someday, it will stick,” Chynoweth says.

The biggest challenge in the hot-lunch line is actually getting the children to take—and eat—the healthy fruits and vegetables meant to “balance out” the chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks, hot dogs and other higher-fat fare.

In West Genesee, for example, children routinely get a choice of three fruits a day: a 4-ounce carton of apple juice, a canned fruit (such as pears or peaches) and a whole fruit (such as apples or bananas). Chynoweth does that on purpose so students will have more control over what they eat—and so are more likely to eat it. For vegetables, she offers items she knows children will like, such as baby carrots with ranch dip.

It also helps to have some encouragement. In the hot-lunch line at Onondaga Road Elementary School, children gripped their plastic trays on a recent fall day and shook their heads at a flurry of questions from food-service worker Donna Talarico. When students said “no” to a fresh fruit salad made of pineapples and oranges, Talarico tilted her head to a metal bowl at the end of the line. It was brimming with apples. “How ‘bout we take an apple then?” she would say.

Since food is her business—and her passion—Chynoweth is always working hard to find healthier choices for the 2,700 students who eat hot lunch every day, on average. Recently, for example, she’s been hunting for a whole-wheat submarine sandwich roll to replace the white sub they still offer at the high school. The white bun tastes “phenomenal,” she says, but she wants a healthier option. She’s also looking into a new kind of whole-wheat bread that looks less brown. If it looks white—but it’s still whole wheat—maybe students will eat more of it.

Students in West Genesee schools still enjoy an occasional cookie or a holiday cupcake, even on the formal hot-lunch menu. But the cupcake is a “mini” one; the cookie is reduced-fat. When students buy 50-cent ice creams at lunch time—the only daily a la carte item—most do not notice that the fudgesicles, lime pops, and slush pops come from a special Perry’s line of treats made with less fat and sugar.
“Food is more than nutrition,” Chynoweth says. “If you don’t like it, what’s the point?”

Homegrown Habits
When it comes to promoting homegrown produce and pushing for healthy eating in the school cafeteria, few go quite so far as Debbie Richardson, the 22-year food-service manager for the Hannibal Central School District.

Last school year, Richardson and 120 second-graders harvested a secret garden she had planted outside their classroom window the year before. They dug up hundreds of potatoes and carrots. Oddly enough, the carrots were purple. Richardson had discovered a special variety during a convention in Syracuse. She thought it would be nice to have the carrots “match” the school’s colors: purple and white.

That constant push to get students excited about eating better is a way of life for Richardson and her team of food-service workers.

This past fall, Richardson launched a new, 26-week program that encourages about 600 students in grades K-4 to “eat their way” through the alphabet. With help from a $1,000 grant from the district’s home-school organization, which is much like a parent-teacher organization, Richardson is promoting a specific fruit or vegetable each week and serving it to them in little bowls. The goal is to fill in all the letters on a special alphabet poster hanging in the cafeteria.

“I want to increase their exposure to these foods,” Richardson says. Students will sample everything from lemons to figs to kohlrabi, a type of cabbage.

When students try blueberries, for example, information about their history and nutritional value will be sent home in a school newsletter. Under “nutrition facts,” students will learn that berries are packed with vitamins A and C and protect against heart disease.

Every day, morning announcements will remind children about their special snack. That’s in addition to the daily “wellness wake-up call” Richardson provides through the New York Coalition for Healthy School Foods. One message says: “It’s fun to eat a rainbow of colors. Peppers come in red, green, yellow and orange. Carrots can be orange, yellow, red or purple. The more colors we eat, the better it is for us!”

As students eat their way through the alphabet, Richardson will continue her six-year push to promote and serve locally grown produce in her schools—a natural effort, she says, when your school district is surrounded by farmland. Hannibal, in fact, has received three awards from the state Legislature’s Committee on Agriculture for promoting locally grown produce.

Hannibal first launched a “Farm to School” project in 2001 after Richardson met with Jennifer Wilkins, a Cornell University professor in the university’s Division of Nutritional Sciences. Richardson initially experimented with locally grown produce by serving it to members of the student council. She later expanded her audience to include second-graders and middle-school students.

In recent years, Richardson has worked with teachers, nutritionists, farmers, distributors, representatives from Cornell Cooperative Extension and others to provide harvest dinners and health fairs featuring New York apples, cider, onions, cranberries and other local fare. The children have shucked corn, milked cows, examined soy plants and tested their knowledge of locally grown produce.

Every fall, one lunch menu is especially unusual. It’s loaded with locally grown produce in honor of a weeklong harvest celebration sponsored by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. In Hannibal, students eat apples and pears from Fruit Valley and Ontario orchards; salads and vegetables from Emmi and Reeves farms; turkey from Plainville Farms; salt potatoes from Marten Farm; and milk from Byrne Dairy.
This year, Hannibal was hailed by the state as the only Central New York district offering a wide variety of locally grown food and special activities for students.

Still, whether the food is locally grown or not, Richardson works hard to get her students—about 1,200 a day who buy lunch—to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.

At the high school, students get two opportunities each week to buy made-to-order sandwiches and salads from a line called “The Market Place Salad and Deli Bar.” Lettuce, onions, peppers, cucumbers, onions, black olives and other foods are piled high in metal containers. Students can pick and choose.This year, Richardson planned to expand the marketplace concept to the middle school. If the high school is any indication, the students will love it.

“The lunch lines are really good here,” says Shannon Baker, 17, whose tray on a recent day was loaded with lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and sesame seeds. Her parents, she added, “would really be surprised.”

Unusual Offerings
Two unusual items appeared on the lunch menu in November at Waterman Elementary School in Skaneateles: sweet-and-sour brussels sprouts, and finely chopped mango.

Reactions were mixed. Some students stabbed the brussels sprouts with their forks, sniffed them, and promptly set them back down. Others took a bite and finished them up, leaving nothing but a puddle of sauce on their trays. As for the mango, it got a warmer response. Most children tried at least a few bites of the yellowish-orange fruit, which tastes like a mixture of oranges, peaches and pineapple.

The Skaneateles Central School District routinely offers fresh, homemade food, plenty of nutritional education, and a variety of low-fat, low-sugar entrees. Elaine Crysler, the school lunch manager, has been doing her job for 18 years. She thinks all of the messages are starting to sink in.

“I see a big difference in eating habits,” she says. “And it’s for the better.”

It helps, of course, to have plenty of options. In Skaneateles, Crysler has eased in whole-wheat breads, low-fat dairy products, nutritious snacks and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. On a recent Wednesday, for example, chicken Caesar salad was the main lunch entree—an item Crysler first introduced after a parent suggested it. Students also had their choice of applesauce, mandarin oranges, peaches, mixed fruit, carrot and celery sticks, and a cup of gelatin made from 100 percent fruit juice.

The unusual items—the mango and brussels sprouts—were just something extra. Crysler launched the “food of the month” program in 2006-2007 in hopes of exposing elementary students to fruits and vegetables they might not try at home. At the beginning of the current school year, she started with the usual seasonal items: apples and pumpkins. In December, she tried pineapple and beans, including lima beans.

At Waterman, Crysler and her staff kicked off the “featured food” program by discussing it at a monthly “morning meeting” with the principal and 300 children gathered in the school gymnasium. In November, when the featured food was brussels sprouts, Principal Marianne Young reminded students at the meeting that these green “baby cabbages” are an excellent source of fiber, vitamin C and—something unusual for vegetables—protein.

Crysler says the primary aim is to keep children excited about what they are eating, especially if it’s good for them.

That was impetus for the “featured food” program and for another fun item on the menu last fall: “Chinese to Go.” The food itself, sweet-and-sour chicken with vegetables over rice, was nothing extraordinary, Crysler admits. In fact, students had eaten this item on the menu before. But once she tucked the food inside little takeout containers, similar to the ones you get in an actual Chinese restaurant, the students gobbled it up.
Another feature of the Skaneateles food-service program is its central kitchen in the middle school, where cooks make most of the entrees from scratch and distribute it to the other schools. Fresh ingredients go into homemade soups. Turkey and beef are roasted and sliced for the high school deli line. On a recent fall day, workers had cut up dozens of apples for apple crisp.

Crysler says most of the 600 students who buy a lunch each day are receptive to the idea of eating healthy, especially if they have no other choice. At the high school, for example, students buying snacks in the a la carte line have grown accustomed to pretzels, baked potato chips (vs. fried), yogurt and cheese sticks, among other not-so-junky choices. In the vending machines, students can buy juice, vitamin water, and 12-ounce sports drinks, rather than super-sized sodas.

“I still sell the same amount, no matter what I sell,” Crysler says. “They buy what’s there.”

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York