Fed up with ‘junk food,’ cafeteria culture shifts

By CHELSEA McDOUGALL - [email protected]
Created: Saturday, October 27, 2012 5:30 a.m. CST

As senior Travis Freeman made his way through the lunch line at Woodstock North High School, he opted for eating what was on the the day’s menu – a slice of pizza, apple slices, carrots, celery and a chocolate milk to wash it all down.

With its whole wheat crust, low-sugar sauce and low-fat cheese, it’s not the average slice of greasy ’za Freeman might expect.

There is a movement afoot, a shift in attitudes, at schools to improve what students are being served in an effort to prevent childhood obesity.

“Honestly, it’s not that bad,” 17-year-old Freeman said of his high school’s food options. “It’s just kind of limited. ... They’re at least trying to make it taste good.”

The culture shift is with good reason, experts say.

According to the most recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, nearly 20 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are obese. That’s up from 7 percent in 1980. Similarly, young people ages 12 to 19 who are obese increased to 18 percent from 5 percent in that same period.

So schools are getting creative with food choices by sneaking more nutritious foods into longtime cafeteria favorites.

“It’s nothing like it was when I went to school,” said Sue Hennelly, a District 155 food and nutrition specialist.

There are still hamburgers, but now they’re on a whole-wheat bun. Chips are available, but only the baked kind. French fries are still an option, but they’re cooked in non-hydrogenated oil. Carbonated beverages? Forget it. Vending machines are going by the wayside, and salad bars now are in vogue.

It’s not the cafeteria of yesteryear. There are wraps and vegetarian options, and plenty of organic fruits and veggie choices.

“The only way to get kids to eat healthy is to eliminate unhealthy options,” North Principal Brian McAdow said. “If they have a choice between McDonald’s cheeseburgers and a healthy salad, which one are they going to choose?”

As Crystal Lake South and Central school’s food and nutrition specialist, Hennelly has spent a considerable amount of time staging the lunch line so the healthiest options are the most appealing to students.

It’s students that she has in mind when she develops menus, even inviting them to taste testings with vendors. Each day, there are at least seven entree options.

“The children are getting a pretty wide variety to choose from,” Hennelly said. “I think that if they have variety, they’re more apt to try something new.”

Woodstock North cultivates its own fruits, herbs and veggies in a 6,000-square-foot school garden maintained by staff and students. They school has harvested more than 330 pounds of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, school officials said.

“They’re not only getting excited, but they’re learning that vegetables don’t grow on a shelf at the grocery store,” said Camden Harlan who designed and manages District 200’s garden. “They get to plant them, watch them grow and harvest them.”

While schools are finding innovative ways to incorporate healthy foods, some experts are spotting problems, too.

Foods and beverages provided through the school breakfast, lunch and after-school snack programs must meet certain nutritional requirements to receive a federal reimbursement.

Calories are capped too in standards outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average caloric intake for students in kindergarten through fifth-grade lunches is 650 calories a meal. It’s 850 in high school.

This blanket approach becomes problematic because some kids are more active than others and burn a lot more calories, said Jill Lindberg, a nurse and owner of Johnsburg-based Destination Fitness. Some children can eat more at lunch time, but for those on a school’s free or reduced lunch meal plan, “what you get is what you get,” she said.

“The one problem that were seeing when we go in and work with schools, when they say, ‘This age level should have this many calories,’ it doesn’t work properly for children playing football,” Lindberg said. “They burn through their calories faster than kids not doing anything. We’re finding that these kids are hungry.”

Regardless, more nutritional food is step in the right direction, experts said.

“What [schools] are trying to do is offer healthy options by taking away candy machines and soda machines and putting salad bars out, which I think is great,” Lindberg said. “They’re trying, really trying. ... It’s long, long overdue.”