School cafeterias aim for balance of nutrition, appeal

DALLAS -- The woman in charge of carrying forth Michelle Obama's quest to change the way America eats has a message of moderation for parents of school-age children.

"We're not saying to children to never drink soda," said Janey Thornton, the U.S. Agriculture Department's deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. "It's OK occasionally, and I underline occasionally, to have soda but also check out the amount that you're consuming."

It's called the common-sense approach to child nutrition, an idea being embraced by school cafeteria directors everywhere. That means providing good food that still contains healthful fats, watching portion sizes, and making lunches and snacks tasty.

Thornton, a former school nutrition specialist in Kentucky, spread her message to more than 5,000 school cafeteria managers, directors and food manufacturers at this week's conference of the School Nutrition Association.

The conference at the Dallas Convention Center, which ended Wednesday, echoed the first lady's Let's Move! campaign to reduce hunger and improve health. Hundreds of manufacturers were there to exhibit products intended to be more healthful and kid-friendly.

No candy or chocolate was in sight in the exhibit halls as school nutrition workers walked the aisles peeling bananas and sipping fruit drinks. Some wore green T-shirts that said, "Drink Something Good for A Change!"

"There's a strange dilemma in our country," Thornton said in an interview. "Obesity is almost an epidemic. We also have a hunger problem, so it's a balance and a fine line. Our challenge is to make sure we're able to serve as many children at school as we can."

That's why one big push is to get breakfast into the classroom and to get teachers to eat lunch with their students in the cafeteria.

Top nutrition experts from area school districts, including Fort Worth, are trying those methods to help more children eat balanced meals, officials said.

Last school year, Fort Worth piloted a program in which breakfast was served in classrooms at four elementary schools. The program will be expanded to three more elementaries and two secondary schools in August.

"More kids actually ate their breakfast," said Angela Lowe, assistant director of children nutrition services. The district prepares about 55,000 lunches and 16,000 breakfasts per day.

Over the years, Fort Worth has brought more healthful products to its cafeterias, Lowe said.

The district provides beef steak fingers with reduced sodium, for example. It is looking at other products, including whole-grain muffins and cookies.

The movement toward balance and "common sense" is a shift from several years ago, when the pendulum swung in the opposite direction and some cafeteria foods lacked adequate nutrients, Thornton said. Nutrition standards weren't being based on scientific data, she said.

"Children need a certain amount of fat. They need more carbohydrates than adults," Thornton said.

While more-nutritious foods are emerging, schools must be careful, Thornton and other child nutrition specialists said.

"If we go overboard in trying to talk to kids that this muffin has spinach and oats and pumpkin in it, they may say 'yuck,'" Thornton said.

Yet, she said, the new muffins are tasty.

Paul Scott, manager of nutrition services for the urban Tacoma, Wash., school district, uses the "yum-yuck" rule. He has children taste-test food. If it's "yum," he'll have it served at schools. If it's "yuck," he is not likely to invest in it. If children won't eat the food, there is no point in serving it, he said.

Scott also likes to provide children with food that draws them to the lunch table. Elementary school children, for example, like food in colorful wrappers; they love finger foods.

"I call them little presents," he said.

In the conference's large hall of hundreds of exhibitors, the most popular items were reduced-sodium products, "happy birthday" cupcakes with significantly reduced fat, whole-wheat pizza crust, low-fat milk and low-fat ice cream. Juices were in bottles shaped like soccer balls, baseballs and basketballs.

Other exhibits showcased "all natural" items, black-bean crackers, cheese-filled breadsticks and breakfast bars that were pre-baked and 51 percent whole-grain.

YAMIL BERARD, 817-390-7705