Good Life

Well-Seasoned | Manageable menu: School district works to weigh healthy food options, costs

An informal poll at Mount Nittany Middle School last week found that, of the 10 middle school students surveyed, all named “lunch” as their favorite period of the day. What’s not to like? You get to socialize with your friends, and either see the love that your mom packed in to your lunch box (Oreos?), or make your own choice about what to eat that day.

Ay, there’s the rub — the choice. Studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health reveal that food choice criteria for adolescents aged 11 to 18 include taste, familiarity, health and satiety. Add peer pressure to that list — what tablemates say about what a child chooses or unpacks can be compelling. Groupthink can rule in these situations, and being a part of the group is critical. One barbed comment can send the cantaloupe flying into the trash can.

School lunch is a popular topic this month, as schools resume and we place our trust in the districts’ food service administrations to provide our children with a third of their daily food intake that is nutritionally sound. The dilemma for the food service providers is to offer kid-friendly choices so that school lunch is indeed chosen, which means relying on pizza, chicken nuggets and burgers. When these items are on the school lunch menu, they are formulated by specialty food manufacturers to follow USDA nutrient guidelines for fat, sodium and fiber.

Megan Schaper, State College Area School District food service director, invited me to lunch at Mount Nittany Elementary and Mount Nittany Middle school last week. She extends an open invitation to anyone who is interested, and I’d recommend going.

The food is good. I sampled a fish stick at the elementary school with crispy sweet potato breading enclosing a slice of moist and tender mild white fish. No tartar sauce was needed. The range of side dishes included tossed salad, baby carrots and celery sticks, and a rainbow assortment of cut up and artfully arranged oranges, watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew and grapefruit, along with whole local apples and nectarines. Low-fat and skim milk was available, as well as soy milk on request for anyone lactose intolerant. Small containers of grape juice offered another beverage option.

Employees were all wearing bright colored T-shirts with nutritional slogans on them, and they were all smiling. Hairnets have come a long way, too, and are barely visible. During the lunch period, school Principal Deb Latta walked through the noisy lunchroom with paraprofessionals strategically placed to maintain decorum and assist in a medical emergency. She greeted and smiled at her young charges, clearly enjoying her “people.”

Schaper, who grew up in Loysville and was one of 13 children, always ate lunch at school and does not have happy memories. She is determined to make school lunch in her district a pleasant and nourishing experience.

“In a perfect world, all school lunch would be free and there would only be one homemade item on the menu. That is not going to happen so we all do what we can.” she said. “It is great to have parental volunteers in the lunchroom to encourage children to try new items. Some children are not exposed to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables at home and school lunch can teach them how to make healthy choices. It can be a very powerful learning experience.”

Schaper is featuring Pennsylvania produce in all schools and is partnering with the Boalsburg Farmers Market Association to do a farm-to-table workshop and tasting in three of the elementary schools this month. She is also planning an October meeting for parents who want to volunteer in the schools at lunchtime. Her goal is to expose the 6,800 children in her district to what can be their key to good nutrition and a longer and happier life.

Until you can get into the lunchroom and see the dynamic in action, Schaper suggests encouraging children to purchase the school lunch and then asking them about it at dinner. If you hear that it is “gross” she would like to know about that, too. If a home-packed lunch will ensure that your child eats well at midday, forget the lunchables and cookies and pack something that includes fruits and vegetables. Your child will be happy to fit right in.