Wednesday, March 21, 2007

School menus compete with fast food

Parents said district should focus on nutrients, not appetites

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
North Chevy Chase Elementary School fourth-grader Solomon Goldfarb complains about some selections on the Montgomery County Public Schools lunch menu during a public forum last Thursday night. Goldfarb, whose mother Aviva Goldfarb was co-organizer of the event, asked MCPS officials if the hot dogs served in his cafeteria were ‘‘made out of rubber.”
Lunches served to Montgomery County Public Schools elementary students are designed to compete with fast food, according to nutrition administrators at a school lunch forum last Thursday night.

A handful of students and about 70 parents came out to the North Chevy Chase Elementary School cafeteria on a rainy evening, to hear from local and state politicians and MCPS dieticians.

Parents were indignant about school dieticians’ opinions that menus should cater to children’s tastes, and politicians followed suit. But officials from the MCPS Division of Food and Nutrition Services, led by supervisor Marla Caplon, argued they were fighting an uphill battle to serve healthy foods.

Caplon said it would be ‘‘ideal to have Brussels sprouts and broccoli in hot [lunches]” but said she preferred to feed students tater tots and corn as the meal’s vegetable. She said green vegetables would be thrown away.

The school’s menu planners struggle to entice students into eating healthy meals, Caplon said, while using state-issued commodity foods.

‘‘We have to find ways to channel that into our menu and make it palatable to kids,” she said.

School lunch entrees in the county have 1 to 27 grams of fat — or a full day’s recommended fat intake for a child age 4 to 13 — according to MCPS nutrient information.

‘‘Rather than prepping [students] to be part of the fast-food mentality, why not challenge them?” said Michael Tabor, a farmer who began advocating for healthy food in schools when his son was a Montgomery Blair High School student.

The panel included Montgomery County Board of Education member Judith Ringgold Docca (Dist. 1) of Montgomery Village, who agreed that fast-food appetites were a foregone conclusion.

‘‘Those French fries are what the kids want, no matter what you say,” Docca told parents.

But Montgomery County Councilman George M. Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park and state Del. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington opposed the idea that school lunches must deign to compete with fast food.

‘‘It’s incredible, the extent to which our kids are subjected to advertising,” Leventhal said. ‘‘But I don’t give my kid French fries just because he wants French fries.... What kids learn at an early age will stick with them.”

Waldstreicher promised to revisit a bill next session, allowing Montgomery County schools to buy slightly higher-priced produce from local growers. During this current session, a bill was introduced that would have allowed the school system to pay 5 percent higher for foods grown locally, but it failed.

‘‘When we have Gummi Bears served to our kids as fruit, that should be embarrassing to MCPS,” Waldstreicher said.

Waldstreicher said the Maryland General Assembly had the power to mandate what goes into public school meals, and that he is committed to introducing a mandate if the bill does not pass.

School lunches are prepared in the county’s 30,000-square-foot production facility with equipment that slices up to 1,000 pounds of meat and cooks 200 gallons of soup per hour. More than 29,000 cookies, brownies and muffins are baked there each day.

According to the MCPS, machinery slices and dices 3,000 pounds of vegetables per hour.

But MCPS officials told parents on Thursday that it was not possible to slice fruit, responding to parents’ claims that whole fruits, especially apples, were unwieldy and unappetizing to young children.

The MCPS currently buys breakfast and lunch ingredients from the lowest bidding supplier and receives commodity foods from the state, which officials attributed to budget constraints.

‘‘Why shouldn’t parents interpret the issue of trying to get the lowest bids possible for the food as getting the cheapest food possible for our children?” Tabor said, prompting applause from the audience.

Two sets of siblings testified about cafeteria fare, including the son and daughter of forum co-organizer Aviva Goldfarb.

Solomon Goldfarb, a North Chevy Chase fourth-grader, asked food administrators if the hot dogs served at lunch were ‘‘made out of rubber,” and said the ‘‘cheese is too cheesy” on pizza slices.

‘‘He’s probably right,” said Barbara Harral, food supervisor for the cluster that includes Rosemary Hills and North Chevy Chase elementary schools. She explained that, to meet dietary regulations, pizza slices are piled with 2 ounces of cheese.

Lisa Hartigan said her daughter, a third-grader at Somerset Elementary School, requested a salad bar option in her cafeteria. Harral said schools could not afford salad bars.

This made sense to Tabor, one of the most outspoken parents to raise complaints at the forum. He said healthy school lunches were a ‘‘budget and priorities” issue, not the fault of school district dieticians.

‘‘All [the nutrition administrators] are trying to do is provide kids with the healthiest food possible,” Tabor said in a phone interview following the forum. ‘‘They need to have a really innovative and creative program, and probably extra money from the state, to address the issue of how do you get [students] to not go from the grill line to fast food?”