Vail Valley Voices: School district seeks healthier food for kids | VailDaily.com

Vail Valley Voices: School district seeks healthier food for kids

Ray Edel
Vail, CO, Colorado

Summer seems to have come and almost gone and it’s hard to believe that right around the corner lurks the beginning of a new school year! As the director of food services for Eagle County Schools, I would like to take the opportunity to shed some light on the extensive efforts in place to ensure our district is encouraging healthier lifestyles for kids.

During the 2009-10 school year:

n The school district concentrated on integrating more whole grains into meals. As of the end of the 2009-10 school year, 50 percent of our meals contained whole grains. The goal for the 2010-11 school year is to increase that number to 75 percent. As a part of the focus on whole grains, we have developed our own home-made pizza crust, which is also made up of 50 percent whole grains.

n The Nutrition and Physical Activity Council was re-established in order to take a closer look at the comprehensive health of our kids. This group worked to rewrite the district’s wellness policy and encourage our children to live healthy and active lifestyles. The individuals in this group are true advocates for nutrition and physical activity in Eagle County Schools, and they should be commended for their efforts.

n A subcommittee of the Nutrition and Physical Activity Council was formed in order to specifically look at school lunches and snacks. Last year alone, this group visited surrounding school districts to see what they’ve done in terms of providing healthier lunch and snack options for students, discussed integrating “scratch cooking” (using whole, raw ingredients) into school lunch programs across the district, researched what it would take to reduce processed meals by 25 percent, discussed incorporating even more whole grains into the food, explored decreasing unhealthy a la carte products (i.e., chips), researched the cost of having an outside consultant come in to assess our lunch offerings and brainstormed how they could tap individuals in the community who could offer nutritional expertise.

n Brush Creek Elementary School grew their first full batch of food at the greenhouse and it was a huge success! Kids were able to taste the goods at lunch during the school’s first ever “Salad of the Day.” Kudos to Master Gardener Sandy Story, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens and Vail Valley Foundation for their hard work and invaluable contributions.

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n We positioned salad bars at 11 of our 15 schools that currently provide food services. After Meadow Mountain Elementary School and Minturn Middle School come together at the old Battle Mountain High School in Eagle-Vail in the fall of 2011, the district will have salad bars in place at 13 of the 15 schools that provide food services. As a healthier alternative, children are constantly provided the opportunity to purchase a salad bar lunch versus a hot lunch. I also want to take the opportunity to thank Butch Mazucca for his recent column where he asked several “healthy questions about food.” I would like to publicly respond to his questions so the community at large gains some insight into the world of school nutrition and becomes aware of the complexity of some of the proposed changes.

n How or why is the money necessary for healthy lunches any different than the money needed for the current fare?

Healthier food options and scratch-cooking concepts simply cost more. This includes the cost of the food itself and labor costs to produce the healthier food options (i.e., scratch-cooking requires a different level of training and expertise for chefs).

n Specifically, how does the Colorado Department of Education and the Federal Commodity Foods Program factor into the process?

School districts are obligated to follow Colorado Department of Education requirements. Each lunch must meet one-third of the recommended daily allowance in terms of protein, calcium, iron, vitamin A and vitamin C. Each lunch must also incorporate the following five components: protein, grain/bread, fruit, vegetable and milk (two types of milk must be offered). Within these components, there are additional requirements in terms of calorie count, portion sizes, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and fiber.

In terms of satisfying these requirements, we receive the following dollar amounts from the state: $0.25 a child for those students who do not qualify for free or reduced lunch, $2.28 a child for those students who qualify for reduced lunches and $2.68 a child for those students who qualify for free lunches.

As you can see, dollars are stretched thin for food costs alone, and this is before you factor in the cost of paper goods, cleaning supplies and personnel costs.

n What are the specific training issues, and who would need to be trained? What are the work-force issues Mr. Edel pointed out?

We have a very dedicated staff in Eagle County Schools who are trained on federally mandated requirements such as food safety. Learning new styles of preparing food, such as scratch-cooking, requires intensive, specialized training and potentially recruiting more experienced chefs, which in turn necessitates additional financial support.

n What specific vendor issues are involved? What is meant by availability?

The district is in a purchasing group with 20 other school districts across the state in order to develop buying power and save money. The vendor provides the group with bulk quantities of food in order to provide lunches to children. The issue is that the vendor ultimately decides which products they will offer, not the district.

n How does food safety enter into the equation?

Food safety is one of the main concerns in school lunchrooms. This includes keeping certain foods at certain temperatures, ensuring proper handling, and much, much more. Each school maintains a Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Points plan, which requires them to identify and document points between receiving and serving of food. Kitchen staff district-wide are trained on this extensive plan every year. When considering the concept of “scratch-cooking,” this means incorporating more raw food into the equation, which increases the likelihood of a food-borne illness. So, as you can see, food safety is a huge concern when considering this healthier alternative style of cooking.

n Who needs to be educated and what specific education needs to take place?

There needs to be an all-inclusive educational approach for cooks, chefs, managers, students and parents. In the short term, we must come to a common definition of what constitutes “healthy” and learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy options.

n What is meant by “mainstream marketing”?

Mainstream marketing is defined as the ideas, actions and values that are most widely accepted by a group or society. As consumers, we are programmed to believe whatever we see and hear relative to product offerings. Many industries successfully manage to influence the perception and purchasing of certain products, and the food sector is no exception. The conglomerate food companies and large restaurant chains often have a different definition of “healthy” versus, say, a registered dietician or doctor. They may offer a grilled vs. fried option, but what the consumer doesn’t realize is that the “grilled” option breast is processed and has more than likely been altered in some form. This carries over to everyday eating and purchasing decisions.

n Specifically who at the district would be responsible to address each of those questions?

Adhering to federal requirements, the district’s chief financial officer, superintendent, Nutrition and Physical Activity Council and I will continue to work collaboratively and creatively in order to make decisions that will provide healthier choices for our children in Eagle County Schools.

As students, parents, staff and community members, I appreciate all that you do to support nutritional services in Eagle County Schools and look forward to working with you in the future.

Moving forward, I will be communicating our efforts in the world of nutrition more consistently as we travel down the path of nutrition together. We have some exciting changes to introduce for the coming school year, so please stay tuned.

Ray Edel is director of food services for the Eagle County School District.t