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2011-02-04 / Features


Astounding variety and healthy choices
By Laura Schaffer
HTF Contributor

VIRGINIA - Good, healthy food choices. That is, and always has been, the mission of Virginia Public Schools’ Food Services Department. With the percentage of overweight children in America having grown to an astonishing one out of three children, many schools are beginning to take steps to change this trend. Virginia Schools are ahead of the game.

In the last five years or so, the Food Services program has had significant changes and additions. They were able to adjust their serving lines, display cases, and design their Blue Devil Bistro sign, which greets students upon entering the cafeteria. The Blue Devil Bistro sign contributes to an atmosphere that makes the children feel they are dining at a restaurant.

In 2006 they added the “cook to order” station, which features stir fry with

fresh vegetables (onion, red and green pepper, sugar snap peas, broccoli) cut each morning, where children are able to watch their food being made before them. An “a la carte” station features a variety of food from tacos in a bag to submarine sandwiches. Students are able to choose their sub sandwich fixings, especially a plethora of vegetables, and watch their sub sandwich be assembled in front of them. Beginning in the 2010-2011 school year, Food Services started baking their bread fresh each morning.

The district also participates in the Minnesota Farm to School Program, where locally grown foods are incorporated into the school’s meals. “This year we have offered apples from Eagan, Minnesota; cabbage and potatoes from the northwest part of the state; watermelon from Stillwater; and wild rice and wild rice bread from the west Range,” said Tonja Cunningham, Program Director.

The Food Services Department is very attentive to students’ special food needs, from food allergies (such as peanuts) to gluten-free diets. Someone in the department will take those food-sensitive

Susan Norlander, Food Service Director, brings a tray of fresh fruit cups to the serving line at the Blue Devil Bistro. Susan Norlander, Food Service Director, brings a tray of fresh fruit cups to the serving line at the Blue Devil Bistro. children through the serving lines to show them what they should have, including a gluten-free soup.

They have changed the language on their menu to more health conscious phrases such as whole kernel corn instead of buttered corn, whole grain bread instead of bread and butter, and low fat milk choices. Currently, they only serve whole grain bread, whole grain pasta, and skim and 1% milk (pink and yellow as the students call them), no more 2% milk or even the long ago whole milk (blue and red).

Each month there is a featured fresh vegetable or fruit, anything from mangoes, Asian pears, or papaya to strawberries and kiwi. This aspect of the Food Services Program introduces fruits and vegetables to students that they may never get to try at home. In addition to the language change, the menus include a mini glossary that tells which vitamins and nutrients a particular food contains. For example, Steamed Broccoli appears with a “Ca” next to it to inform students that broccoli is rich in Calcium.

Breakfast is also available to students. Oatmeal and low sugar cereals are a choice every day along with yogurt, breakfast pizza, and the age-old kids’ favorite, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The Food Services staff has done trial runs of various fruits and vegetables to get feedback from students. They went into the hallway with organic baby carrots and jicama sticks. While younger students were more apt to try anything compared to older students, every student that tried these vegetables liked them. While going through the cafeteria, the staff asked students about the fruit cup they took which consisted of grapes, pineapple, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon - when was the last time they had these fruits at home? Every student said they never have cantaloupe or honeydew melon, and rarely pineapple at home. Grapes were what sealed the deal for them to try the fruit cup. “Even if students may not get these fruits or vegetables at home, parents can be happy that their child is getting and enjoying them at school,” Cunningham said.

“Student preferences change slowly,” said the program director. “Their favorites include stir fry from the cook-to-order station, comfort foods, and Mexican and Italian dishes. Most recently their favorite is the made-to-order sub which includes fresh baked sub buns, fresh vegetables such as peppers, onions, lettuce and tomatoes, cheese slices and three different meat selections.”

Upon entering a grocery store, the first foods encountered are fruits and vegetables. The same is true for Virginia Public Schools.

Children enter and see the bright colors of fruits, vegetables, salads and the stir fry station. Once a student moves down the serving line, there are easy-tograb cups of fruit or vegetables, since many students don’t want to lose their spot if they decide to go back to get those important foods.

Burgers and pizza are also offered on some days. Even these foods are made healthier with the pizza low in fat and made with a whole wheat crust. All buns are whole grain.

The Food Service staff has plans to paint a mural of bright fruits and vegetables on the walls of the cafeteria to support the students’ healthy food choices and to coordinate with the Blue Devil Bistro’s serving area.

Cunningham said that items that now appear on their menu only occasionally as features, could become every day staples. These include black beans, edamame, garbanzo beans, couscous, and Asian pears. “We foresee a shift from students learning a food preference at home and bringing that preference to school, to the opposite,” she said. “They will discover something they like at school and ask their family to add it to their shopping list.”

INAC, Inc., providers of the Virginia Public Schools food services, is administered by Cunningham, Food Services Director Susan Norlander, and Polly Podpeskar, a Registered Dietician.

Laura Schaffer is a graduate of Virginia High School, and the University of Wisconsin-Superior. She is currently serving as a marketing intern for Virginia Public Schools.

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