NH schools are taking the steps to make school lunches healthier

Granite State schools are moving away from the mystery meat

Fried chicken nuggets, butter-laden mashed potatoes and sugary soft drinks are school cafeteria options of the past. Today, schools across the state are swapping out unhealthy options for more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats.

Due to Congress passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010 – which aims to help ensure every American child has access to nutritious food so they can perform well in school and learn healthy eating habits early on – schools nationwide have had to revise their daily menus.

“School is a place of learning, so there is no better place for us to be showing our children and students how to eat a little healthier on a day-to-day basis,” said Kelly Rambeau, Nutritional Services Director of Pelham School District.

Each of Pelham’s four schools – Elementary Preschool, Elementary, Memorial, and High School – serves anywhere from three to five fruits and vegetables each per day. All of the bread, wraps, breadsticks, snacks, and breading on products they use are also whole wheat or whole grain, and all juice is 100-percent fruit juice.

“We also try to introduce new fruits and vegetables on a monthly basis,” Rambeau said.

Similarly, all of Rochester’s public schools have revised their food options over the last few years. Their changes even resulted in eight of their schools being awarded the bronze medal in the Healthier U.S. School Challenge.

“Some of the changes…include the use of more whole-grain products, reducing the use of sodium, bad fats and sugar, moving to healthier snack options, offering a variety of fruits, vegetables, and lean meats daily, as well as an expanded breakfast offering,” said Tom Tanner, Director of Dining Services for Rochester Public Schools/Chartwell’s.

Although Rochester students weren’t initially excited about the healthier options when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act first came into effect, each school has since implemented a variety of food and nutrition education initiatives. As a result, students are increasingly trying the new choices as they become familiar with them.

Some of these initiatives include monthly food focuses, which encourage students to try seasonal foods; the Simply Good food and nutrition campaign, which highlights important topics throughout the year such as eating local, eating breakfast, and eating well-balanced meals; and the Chefs2Schools program, which brings professional chefs into each school to share nutritional information with students by showing them how to create healthy dishes.

“The process of encouraging students to eat healthy will take time, but in the end, the students – especially the younger ones – will gain improved eating habits they can use the rest of their lives,” Tanner said.

Beth Aiello, mother of two in Merrimack, said Merrimack High School has updated more than their cafeteria options – the school has also updated their vending machines.

“[The] vending machines [offer] snacks, breakfast, and granola bars, as well as juices, water, and Gatorade – but no soda,” Aiello said.

Despite many schools’ attempts at offering healthier options, some parents still prefer sending their kids with a bag lunch.

“The fruits and vegetables that [my son] had on his tray went from his tray to the trash,” said Danyelle Auditore, mother of two in Goffstown. “I feel that if I send them to school with fresh fruit and vegetables and a healthy lunch entree that I can keep track of what they are eating and how much.”

Along with not being completely sure about how much of the healthy food your kids are actually eating at school, the more nutritious options also come with a price.

“The lunches have gotten healthier, but also more expensive,” Aiello said.

The USDA has set certain price points for the new school lunch, breakfast, and a la carte programs, but, thankfully, some schools are trying to help make the healthier options more affordable for students and their families. One way to do this is to achieve the 6 Cents Certification – like Rochester Public Schools has – which provides an additional 6-cents per lunch reimbursement to school districts that are in compliance with the new meal patterns.

“We also have relationships with food manufacturers nationwide and are able to obtain more competitive pricing,” Tanner said.

Despite schools’ continued efforts to make their menus healthier and their prices as reasonable as possible, one thing remains consistent: pizza day is still the most popular day in the lunch room – although now, it’s typically prepared on whole-wheat crust with a side salad.

“[My sons] are allowed to have a ‘cheat day’ on Fridays and buy pizza,” Auditore said. “I know they're probably not eating their fruits and veggies, but I know they enjoy buying and eating pizza with their friends.” 

Michelle Lahey is a food writer and private caterer based in Somerville, Mass. She also blogs about food at theeconomicaleater.com.

Categories: Food news