Goodbye, Mystery Meat? School Lunches Get More Healthful

Aug 18, 2011

Kids may claim that Tater Tots are the only edible food in the school cafeteria, but in reality, school lunches are getting more healthful.

Almost all cafeterias now serve fresh fruits and vegetables, according to a survey of school food directors released Thursday. Whole grains are readily accessible in 97 percent of schools, and 89 percent of districts offer salad bars or pre-packaged salads. Gone are the days of full fat milk; virtually all districts offer skim or 1 percent.

Since the Institute of Medicine released its report calling for an overhaul in school nutrition two years ago, the folks that run cafeterias have begun stretching budgets — and their imaginations — to put more colorful, nutrient-packed lunches on kids' trays.

And where does this fresh food come from? Farm-to-school initiatives are in the works at 70 percent of school districts. They are aimed at connecting children to local farms and the people who grow food. And more than 50 percent of districts say they have school gardens or are interested in planning one.

But parents (and cafeteria managers) know that just offering healthful foods isn't enough. Kids can be fickle consumers, and they're accustomed to choice.

"Food, to a certain extent, is one way of expressing their identity," says David Just, who co-directs the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition.

And school food directors get that. The survey finds that 90 percent of schools are involving students in taste-testing new menu items.

One strategy: sneaking healthful ingredients into recipes — nacho sauce made with butternut squash, or red spaghetti sauce loaded with zucchini puree.

This stealth approach is just one way kids are being nudged to make better food choices.

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