The war on fat: A new approach toward a healthier school lunch

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on Dec. 10, 2016.

A typical school lunch used to mean a handful of chicken nuggets and french fries or, if you were lucky, a plate of hot spaghetti and frozen meatballs. But these days school officials are working to recreate their menus to include fresher, healthier options for students in the face of a stubborn teen obesity problem.

For the past three years, the national obesity rate for high school students has floated between 13 percent and 14 percent, with an additional 16 percent of students classified as overweight or on the verge of obesity, according to 2015 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Massachusetts the numbers are a little lower, but obesity still remains a problem – and the number of overweight students has jumped 2.5 percent in the past two years, alone.

In 2013, around 10 percent of high school students in Massachusetts were classified as obese, with an additional 12.9 percent overweight. By 2015, some 11 percent of students were obese and 15.3 percent overweight.

And, the reasons for obesity can be never-ending: Blame it on a lazier generation of millennials lulled by the luxury of technology, an epidemic of genetically-modified foods or health problems that run in the family. The list can go on.

But, realizing almost 32 million children nationwide eat school lunch every day, some school officials are taking the issue into their own hands to make change where they can.

North Attleboro High’s Heather Baril is tackling the problem head-on, looking for modifications in the lunch menu she puts together each month as the district’s nutrition director.

This past Friday, the high school cafeteria featured a “Meatless Monday” sample day.

Students were able to sample and rate three vegetarian entrees that could be added to the school’s main menu. Up for grabs were samples of a “smokin’ powerhouse” vegetarian chili, a quinoa salad and a vegetable lo mein dish.

And Monday, students are in for another treat. Cafeteria workers will introduce fresh homemade pizza to the lunch line using raw whole-grain dough and low-sodium cheese cooked to perfection in their own kitchen.

“It’ll be a healthier version of the pizza you usually see,” Baril said.

“Our goal is to be able to get kids to try new things. And by removing meat (one day a week), the idea is you’re increasing your vegetable consumption, as well. So this is all part of encouraging a healthy diet and trying to encourage them to try new things at school that hopefully they can implement at home, too.”

Baril will consider feedback collected Friday to determine how successful the efforts were.

But her hope? That both programs become staples on the monthly lunch menu and pave the way for her staff to explore other healthy lunch options for the district as a whole.

In Attleboro, healthier options have been on the table since Whitsons Food Services took over management of the menu seven years ago. The company promotes fresh produce and always opts for a whole-wheat or grain option when possible, Food Service Director Brian Pappone said.

Last year, it introduced Meatless Mondays to great success, and all meals are analyzed and approved by a registered dietitian with the company.

Those efforts will make a difference, nutrition experts say.

Ed Poirier, a health and wellness specialist at the Attleboro YMCA, visits schools in Attleboro and Norton about three times a year to review healthy eating and exercise habits with students.

But, most of the healthy lifestyle information students receive, Poirier says, comes from everyday interactions with the food they are served at lunch.

“School is where they go to learn things like math and science, but they’re also learning about nutrition by what’s put in front of them,” he said. “This might be the only hot meal they’re getting that day, and it’s teaching them, ‘this is a healthy way to eat.’

“It goes along with everything else they learn in school. So, it’s important for schools to provide good nutritious meals to set that example.”

Poirier said schools should always offer a healthy entree alternative, like a salad, and follow the CDC’s healthy plate recommendations by filling half of a student’s plate with fruits and vegetables, and the other half with proteins and grains.

These are things that are starting to become the standard in schools.

But, another option that hasn’t been as widely explored? Giving kids more time to eat, Poirier said.

“Kids right now have 20 minutes to go from their class to their locker, through the lunch line, eat and get back to class,” he said. “So, they’re going to try to grab the thing they can eat the fastest so they have more time to interact with their friends.

“Instead of grabbing that salad, they’re going to opt for the pizza that they can scarf down quickly.”

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