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Edwards: Saying goodbye to Chester Cheetah

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyIvan Armus, 5, tries on of the organic crackers Edwards Elementary is having kids taste as an alternative to potato chips and other less healthy snacks.
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EDWARDS, Colorado ” Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, in all their fatty, additive-laced glory, used to be the choice snack at the Edwards Elementary cafeteria.

A few months ago, they disappeared, and hot and spicy sun flower seeds took their place as the top selling snack. They’re full of protein, have fewer chemicals, and the kids really like them, says Tara van Dernoot, a parent who’s trying to get healthier snacks in school cafeterias.

Edwards Elementary is piloting a Healthy Snacks program. Classic junk food favorites like Doritos and cookies have been replaced with more wholesome foods like sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, trail mix and a dried fruit substance called “Fruit Jerky,” which is sort of a healthier version of a fruit roll up.

The program started with a group of parents who wanted their kids to have better choices when they went looking for a snack at school. Hopefully, more schools will start offering healthier snacks that are low in sugar, low in fat, minimally processed and have better ingredients, van Dernoot said.

“We were trying to get away from foods that were highly processed and full of additives and chemicals,” van Dernoot said.

Tally sheet in hand, Edwards Elementary fifth grader Ellie Howe asks a table full of kindergartners if they liked the cheddar cheese flavored snack crackers she dropped onto their cafeteria trays. They all raise their hands, and she marks them down.

“Cheese is my favorite!” cries one kid, while others have become devotees of the pizza flavor of snack crackers. “We love pizza! We love pizza!” the kindergartners at table two start chanting, and there are even a couple devotees of the whole grain flavor.

“The pizza flavor is much saltier, and I think that’s why they’ll like them. They taste more like Doritos,” said parent Natalie Rooney, who wants to start a similar program at Brush Creek Elementary.

This is a snack cracker tasting. The entire school is trying out the “My Family Farm” brand of snack crackers, which are baked, not fried, with unbleached organic wheat flour. No trans fats, 120 calories a serving.

Before buying loads of new snacks, it’s important to make sure the kids actually like them, van Dernoot said. The school had its first tasting last October, when they discovered how much the kids really liked the seeds and dried fruit and didn’t need potato chips.

These kinds of snacks, the kids are learning, really are healthier, said Ray Edel, food services director for the school district. They offer more “balanced” energy, meaning a better mixture of protein, carbohydrates and fat, instead of the sudden rush of energy you get from eating fatty chips.

“In our newsletter every month, we feature a comparison of a new product we were introducing to an old one,” van Dernoot said. “We also sent home a color handout in English and Spanish showing kids the differences between a healthy snack and a not so healthy snack.”

Tasting is also important because these snacks are more expensive and difficult to ship. The snacks now being sold at Edwards can’t be found in supermarkets, and the normal vendors that supply the school district’s snacks don’t carry them either. This means more contracts and more shipping costs, Edel said.

This is why, for now, all the schools aren’t selling snacks like the ones in Edwards Elementary.

“You need to find a product you can sell for 50 cents, and that’s very difficult,” Edel said.

For the past few months, a $1,000 grant has been paying for the new snacks at Edwards Elementary. The money will buy barely enough snacks for the end of the school year, then they’re out of money, van Dernoot said.

Edel said he’s committed to continuing the healthy snacks program at Edwards Elementary, and possibly even bringing the program to other schools. He’ll be comparing sales at the end of this year to the sales during the last few months of the last school year to see if it’s something that they could afford to bring to other elementaries.

“To be successful, we need to find different sources to fund these programs, because the federal government and the national school lunch program aren’t stepping up to the plate,” Edel said.

Van Dernoot and Edel are forming a districtwide task force to improve the snack program at all the schools. They’ll begin meeting later this month.

“The first thing we need to do is figure out what the districtwide policy is going to be with snacks, then what is it we feel is important to have as snack ingredients,” van Dernoot said.

The committee would likely continue trying to find good products to sell in schools, find money, and eventually, maybe even tackle a large, more difficult issue: the hot lunches being served in the school.

“The bigger charge and concern in the district is how to make the lunch program better,” van Dernoot said.

If you feel like healthier snacks should be a part of Eagle County schools, you’re not alone. Check out http://www.healthyfoodineaglecountyschools.blogspot.com/ to read a blog started by Brush Creek Elementary parent Natalie Rooney. There are plenty of comments.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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